Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Sarah Weinman's Book To Die For - The Late Man by James Preston Girard

Sarah Weinman is News Editor for Publishers Marketplace, where she works on Publishers Lunch, the industry’s essential daily read with more than 40,000 subscribers, as well as additional projects.  She also writes the more-or-less monthly “Crimewave” column for the National Post.  Previously she wrote “Dark Passages,” a monthly online mystery & suspense column for the Los Angeles Times, and "The Criminalist", a monthly online for the Barnes & Noble Review. Earlier in her career, she was the Baltimore Sun's crime fiction columnist and an editor for GalleyCat, mediabistro.com’s publishing industry news blog.

Her reviews and articles have appeared in a wide range of print and web publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Philadelphia Inquirer to name a fewHer short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies including Dublin Noir, Baltimore Noir, Damn Near Dead, Expletive Deleted and A Hell of a Woman

From October 2003 until January 2011, she ran the influential blog Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, which was shortlisted for an Anthony Award for Website in 2008 and she was nominated for an Anthony Award for Special Services the same year. 
In a perfect world, all talented writers would be around forever, writing books at their own pace, climbing bestseller lists, and acquiring a devoted coterie of fans to worship at their feet. But of course, this world is far from perfect, and wonderful writers fade into the collective conscious with shocking ease. Which is probably why most of you haven’t heard of Kansas writer James Preston Girard. That’s a shame, because more people should.

Some of this lack of recognition is due to Girard’s sparse output. He’s written three novels to date, and one of them – A KILLING IN KANSAS (1991) – was published under the pseudonym Jeffrey Tharp. The two under his own name are separated by a nine-year gap, and SOME SURVIVE (2002) was put out as a paperback original. There’s been nothing since; no wonder his name has fallen off the radar somewhat. 

At his best, Girard expertly combined the elements of a good crime novel with nuanced psychological depth, really getting at the heart of his characters and what makes them tick. The crimes are merely a catalyst for human conflicts, and by showing how people’s individual lives are affected by murder placed in the backdrop, the result is, oddly enough, far more profound and effective.

I first heard of him a few years ago when SOME SURVIVE had a fairly prominent place amongst the special title listings at Partners & Crime. The then-manager was a huge fan, and others spoke very highly of Girard’s earlier work, THE LATE MAN (1993). I knew it was a book I’d get around to reading eventually, but since the later book was more readily available, I read it first. SOME SURVIVE was good. THE LATE MAN, however, was in a whole other class.

There are two books I want to emulate, copy, steal from. One is IN A LONELY PLACE by Dorothy B. Hughes. The other is THE LATE MAN, set in 1980s Wichita. Running in the background of the story is the once-dormant investigation of a BTK-esque serial killer who places roses by each victim’s side that flares up once again when a new victim is discovered. Though there is a resolution, the book is really about the lives and flaws of its three main protagonists: police Captain L.J. Loomis, journalist Sam Haun (the “late man” because he works the overnight shift at the paper) and rising star Stosh Babicki.

Each character wrestles with palpable demons, mostly to do with failing relationships: Loomis has lost his wife to another man and misses her and their children, whom he does not see, terribly. Haun’s wife Claire and younger son are dead, and in its aftermath, he chances upon Claire’s diary, confessing in great detail to an affair with the newspaper’s main boss. Who, at this time, is having his own affair with the intelligent but impressionable Babicki. Is that affair a case of real love, manipulation, or something in between? Babicki doesn’t really know for sure, but, as she discovers, it’s a vise she must ungrip herself from.

THE LATE MAN is ultimately about loss of every kind, and Girard writes of such things with an almost terrible knowledge; even if he didn’t know about it personally, his characters do with unfathomable depths. Though at times uncomfortable, the writing is so beautiful and understated that the emotional heft packs a wallop. What’s also gripping is what is left unspoken and unresolved; Girard doesn’t hit the reader over the head with revelations and conclusions but allows them to find them out of their own accord. The book found a small audience when published nearly 20 years ago, but if anything, it stands up better to time now, and I urge all to track down a copy to discover for themselves.

1 comment:

Risto Raitio said...

the heading is totally misguided, as Ms Weinman only mentions the marvellous Hughes title as one of her two all-time favourites, but actually writes in her entry about THE LATE MAN by James Preston Girard.