Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Dark Network forces

The Imogen Trager novels offer a compelling critique of the precarious state of democracy.
Faithless Elector, which debuted in the spring of 2016, is a taut thriller about stealing the presidential election.  Its central premise is the latent weaknesses and potential for abuse inherent in the Electoral College.  The precise machinations envisioned in the book have not come to pass (thankfully!), but the larger issues raised by the story remain.

Meanwhile, current events expose the precarious, brittle state of democracy almost daily, as well as its impotency. The weaknesses exploited in Faithless Elector remain latent and prone to mischief...and there are others.  Which sets up the second book, Dark Network (due out in October!). As a novelist,  I've been able to explore these themes within the context of a pacy, compelling story about a search for truth and justice.

Faithless Elector, and Dark Network are not narrowly about political parties, the weakness(es) of the Electoral College, or events which daily overwhelm the news cycle.  They are about ordinary people battling powerful forces. The books (and the forthcoming Consent of the Governed) are about the precarious vulnerability of our democracy and its potential impotency in the face of decisive, ruthless, well-heeled interests.  I'm not a political scientist.  These are thrillers, not conference papers. What compels me as a novelist, are the characters, thrust into dangerous, extraordinary circumstances.

"Governments are instituted among Men," the Declaration of Independence reads, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".  Taken together, the books shine a glaring light on how that consent can be twisted and negated--and what the emotional response of characters forced into action looks like.

The books have never been about the rightness or fitness of one party or another, except insofar as the "bad guys" seem to be circumventing them.  Parties are, after all, at least responsible and responsive to their constituents; and ideally, when a party no longer has our consent, they are voted out.  Moreover, political parties are the only bulwark against self-dealing elites.  The books appeal to readers on either side of our broadening political divide.

I'm gratified that readers (see Amazon reviews) and independent reviewers have picked up on these broader themes of taut storytelling, dark forces, political accountability and personal responsibility, of the necessity for "ordinary" people to participate in the life of their nation.

To take just three examples:
  • Book Viral Review: "Taut and well-paced, but for readers reading between the lines it also works on a moral level."
  • "The pleasure of Faithless Elector lies not just its smooth evocative prose, but in the author's justified confidence that good writing can make chases through recognizable locales sufficiently exciting without a Navy SEAL or a terrorist plot." Review, Plattsburgh Press-Republican
  • Publishers Weekly Review: "A fast-moving topical thriller...Surprising twists...add up to a highly suspenseful read."

While the books can stand alone, the series is about what can happen when a tiny group seeks extra-democratic means to take control for their own benefit.

In that way, the books may be more prophetic than even I imagined.  You should see for yourself.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller. Publishers Weekly calls it a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming in October, 2017.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available NOW through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center






Saturday, 17 June 2017

Morbid Truth

I’ve always found Horton the Elephant, by Dr. Seuss problematic. I like the notion of saying what you mean and meaning what you say, and staying faithful to one’s word—one hundred per cent.  A good many of us could do with a bit more of it.  But the ending—spoiler alter!—where the baby bird hatches as a hybrid elephant-bird, and the narrator claims, “It should be, it should be; it should be like that,” is ludicrous. Because, while it might be nice to think it should be like that, well…it isn’t.

I realize that in these fantastical fictional worlds anything goes—an elephant sits on an egg through trials and tribulations; doubt and bad weather, but like socially minded Science Fiction, the meaning of the allegory is aimed at the reader. The story deliberately removes an idea or issue from context in order to examine, or discuss it; and since there’s a larger context, authorial proclamations regarding what should be or should not be need to be rigorous.

Dr Suess can be a realist. The vanity, hubris and stupidity of Yurtle the Turtle are pretty stark. But when Dr. Drake in Gertrude McFuzz gives in to the whining protestations of a vain, teenager bird (the titular character) who wants her tail feathers to be as grand as Lalla-Lee-Lou’s, Suess misses a huge point: a Doctor tells the distraught young bird where to find the quick fix pill-berry bush that will make her tail feathers grow.
In essence he writes here a scrip with unlimited refills because she threw a tantrum in his office! Sure, Gertrude is made to look and feel silly at the end, sore, but wiser; but how, I ask you, how does Dr. Drake keep his license? Where’s the “should be?” Where’s the inquest? Does Dr. Drake end up making millions running one of those opioid prescription mills in Florida, still benefitting from misery rather than easing suffering?

Perhaps a hundred years too early (1915), the Irish writer, Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany, published a morbid version of The Tortoise and the Hare, discussed here by Atlas Obscura. Dunsany’s version has an interesting moral. In the end, this version of the tale is more about the animal spectators than about the contestants; and, I would hazard, a warning about enshrining in "truth" things you only wish were true; like, say, a shady businessman with no experience running even a publicly traded company, four bankruptices, and no governmental experience could become the president American needs.

In Dunsany’s story, the hare was vain and arrogant, and the spectators enjoyed watching him lose, but then there’s a forest fire at one edge of the woods, and the task of warning the other animals to flee the fire is given to the fastest animal—the tortoise who won the race—and all the woodland creatures perish because the warning doesn’t reach them in time.


 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon. Consent of the Governed will be available next year.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center



Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Stranger than fiction buries the needle on the "verisimeter"

I apologize if it sounds like I'm moaning about real conspiracies overtaking the fictional ones I've created.  I'm not complaining so much as apologizing to you all for aiming so low with my poor, deadly, plausible conspiracies.  Maybe I should endeavor to be less plausible in future. On the verisimilitude meter current events superseding those in Faithless Elector are eye watering.

My imagined "Verisimeter" (c) looks a bit like the Politifact truth gauge, but with an editor's red pencil in place of the needle.  And instead of ranging from "mostly true" to "pants on fire" the gauge would swing from "Oh, come on!" to "Hmmm. Yeah, that works."

Apologies to Politifact
Case in point: an article in Bipartisan Report, citing the Huffington Post describes events that leave the poor (fictional) conspiracy of Faithless Elector, and the machinations of Dark Network behind in the dust:
"A 1994 federal court ruling in Pennsylvania may have set a precedent that could put Hillary Rodham Clinton in as leader of the free world, according to Huffington Post," says Gloria Christy.

My post from just two days ago (28-May) began with the Tom Clancy quote stating that the difference between fact and fiction was that "fiction has to make sense."

If I were to write HuffPost's above scenario in a future novel, I think my editor's head would explode, along with the heads of my readers if said scenario made it past the draft stage. Moreover, because it's so tenuous, ill-conceived and implausible readers would feel cheated.  It screams deus ex machina. Back in the real world, my questions are:  a) are there no editors at these publications? is there no one to say "that would/could never happen, spike it;" and b) regarding the current administration and its daily blundering intrigue, who's in charge?  Who thought any of what's been happening would play well?

I will be beginning a weekly Verisimeter (trademark pending) test of recent headline stories.  I will write the chain of events behind the headlines as they are known or suggested, and then run the whole thing through the Verisimeter, giving it a rating of "Oh, c'mon!" or "Yeah, that could work."

My interest will be purely academic--not whether what's happening is good, or just or wise, and frankly it's a bit late in the day for that, but whether it could withstand scrutiny in the fictional world.


 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon. Consent of the Governed will be available next year.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center




Sunday, 28 May 2017

Verisimilitude and prediction

Tom Clancy famously said, "The difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense."  Verisimilitude means "like truth," plausible; and it's the novelist's key storytelling tool. What makes the kind of intrigue I write about disquieting is that verisimilitude requires setting up possible, plausible scenarios to dramatically examine and explore.  While the facts in my books couldn't withstand even the internet's sketchy fact-checking, the meaning and import--the truth behind the facts--of what these stories grapple with is meaningful, disturbing and relevant.

The New York Times today (Sunday, May 28) published an opinion piece by Stephen Roderick, Do We Really Want Mike Pence to be President? It leapt out at me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that issues surrounding the office of the vice president are key to the events in the final book of the Faithless Elector thriller series, which I'm writing now--working title, Consent of the Governed.

Faithless Elector, the first book in the series, told the story of a deadly efficient conspiracy to steal the presidency by manipulating the Electoral College.  In this third book, the conspirators are still at large, still trying to win, with grave consequences for the future of our democracy.  Faithless Elector had great reviews and garnered a good deal of attention in the run-up to last year's presidential election, for which I am grateful.

Its premise turned out not to be prophetic (thank goodness!), but the havoc wrought on the political landscape by the Electoral College is all too real; and the weaknesses (fictionally) exploited in Faithless Elector are real, still latent--and potent. [For a primer on those issues and weaknesses, see Primer on the Electoral College]

The final book, Consent of the Governed, veers farther from the true events besetting the nation, but the premise remains all-too real.  Who is the vice-president?  Did we really think much about him/her during the campaign, or when we voted?  Does he/she have an agenda?  Where, as a governmental afterthought, does the vice president's power lie?

"Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," reads the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.  In Faithless Elector, these words resound in the mind of the protagonist Duncan Calder as he frets over what a nation not so constituted would look like...would act like.  The Faithless Elector series is not about what is happening right now, but about what it means.

In an earlier blog post (Sailing Too Close to the Wind) about book two in the series, Dark Network, I wrote about how I worried that the meaning behind the events I described was a little too close for comfort; and as I begin working on chapter three of this final book, I find that once again I'm not far from the mark.


Dark Network is coming soon.  Consent of the Governed will be available next year.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center

Monday, 22 May 2017

Paying attention

"People need to be reminded more than they need instruction."
-Samuel Johnson 

The Faithless Elector stories shine a glaring light on complacency by homing in on people working frantically to preserve and protect the weakest, most vulnerable aspects of our democracy--the Electoral College, legislative oversight, an independent judiciary.

Samuel Johnson's quote, above, might also extend to vigilance in politics. [He didn't get everything right about politics, by the way, nor the Americas for that matter: see Taxation No Tyranny (1775)].  
Like housework, politics is never finished; and it is precisely when things seem to be going reasonably well that we let our collective guard down, stop paying attention.

Faithless Elector, which debuted in March, 2016 just over a year ago is a taut thriller about stealing the presidential election.  Its central premise is the latent weaknesses and possibility for abuse inherent in the Electoral College system.  The precise machinations envisioned in the book have not come to pass (thankfully!), but the larger issues raised by the story remain.  Those same weaknesses remain latent and prone to mischief...and there are others, as we are seeing almost daily.

Faithless Elector, and the second book in the series, Dark Network (coming soon!) were never narrowly about political parties or merely the weakness(es) of the Electoral College; but rather, the precarious vulnerability of our democracy and its potential impotency in the face of decisive, ruthless, well-heeled interests.

"Governments are instituted among Men," the Declaration of Independence reads, "deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed".  The Faithless Elector series stares unblinking at the forces arrayed to thwart and negate that consent. Taken together, they are the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

I'm gratified that readers (see Amazon reviews) and independent reviewers have picked up on these broader themes of political accountability and personal responsibility, of the necessity for "ordinary" people to participate in the life of their nation.

To take just three examples:
  • Book Viral Review: "Taut and well-paced, but for readers reading between the lines it also works on a moral level." (emphasis mine)
  • "The pleasure of Faithless Elector lies not just its smooth evocative prose, but in the author's justified confidence that good writing can make chases through recognizable locales sufficiently exciting without a Navy SEAL or a terrorist plot." Review, Plattsburgh Press-Republican
  • Publishers Weekly Review: "A fast-moving topical thriller...Surprising twists...add up to a highly suspenseful read."
The series has never been about the rightness or fitness of one party or another.  Parties are, after all, at least responsible and responsive to their constituents; and ideally, when a party no longer has our consent, they are voted out.  The series is about what can happen when a tiny group seeks extra-democratic means to take control for their own benefit.  In that way, the books may be more prophetic than even I imagined.  You should see for yourself.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center






Tuesday, 18 April 2017

A flickering beacon

The NY Times gathered writers of politics-themed television shows for "a cathartic group therapy session." On hand were writers Shonda Rhimes (“Scandal”), Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson (“House of Cards”); Barbara Hall (“Madam Secretary”) and David Mandel, of “Veep.”

They each had interesting things to say about their work, and the public's perception of it.  David Mandel seems to hit the nail on the head for all of them when he says:  "The show has never been about current politics; it’s about politics in general. It’s about power...pulling back the curtain of what Washington is really like."  
Each of the series listed above peels back and reveals just how craven and awful our leaders can be. Their insider focus reminds me of Hollywood meta-films, like "The Player," or "Swimming with the Sharks," that profile the vanity and vapid wastefulness of the film business.  Part of their appeal is that they show us the imagined inner workings of government or the film industry, and we are let inside at the highest, craziest levels.  Those at the top will do anything to get or keep power.

But there is a qualitative difference between Hollywood and the Beltway, between business and government, commerce and politics; and the focus on the great and powerful gives us only one part of the picture.  In many ways the template for "The Player" has been superimposed on our political thrillers, where it sits uneasily.  True, each "world" is concerned with image and status and maintaining a firm grip, but the source of power is radically different.

Shonda Rhimes makes a further interesting, salient point when she notes that what audiences are looking for has changed since the election.  "Scandal," she says, is "basically a horror story."  For her, the occupant of the Oval Office is key:  in the past, storylines were "based on a world in which Obama was president...and our audience was optimistic. You can tell any horror story you want when the lights are on.  But now, the lights are off, and now people don't want to watch horror stories, they want you to light a candle somewhere."

Maybe I felt like the lights were already off, but I think I know where to find the light source.

It may be that in an era such as ours, when ordinary people feel powerless and ignored, we fixate on those at the top because we feel we don't have power.  And because our leaders are so preoccupied with image and symbolic gestures, it's easy to see government through the prism of Hollywood dealmakers.  But that's not how it's supposed to be.  Those at the top should be worried about us. They have great power, it's true, but that power issues from us. They work for us and serve at our pleasure.  It's kind of an important point to remember.

Faithless Elector, published in March of 2016, was not a prediction of what would happen in the November election. It was a cold look at a possible scenario in which corrupt power threatens to upend our democracy, seizing on the Electoral College as the weakest link.  The novel pulls back the curtain on a brutal, chillingly effective conspiracy; and in the story it's not a group of elite fighters or elite politicians who rise to stop the plot, but a group of regular people who risk everything.  The forthcoming Dark Network takes us further into the conspiracy.

Popular literature reflects the time in which it's written.  It can also reflect ways in which people wish things were different.  The writer and creative writing teacher, Charles Johnson (Middle Passage, Oxherding Tale) once related a story where he was talking with one of his mentors lamenting over stories he wished existed.  "YOU should write those stories," he was told.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Sightings

I took advantage of a visit to metro DC this past weekend for a friend's 50th birthday celebration (and many more, Joel!) to scout some locations I'm using for my upcoming novel, Dark Network, the sequel to Faithless Elector.

I'm not from DC, and I have never lived there, but my wife and I have good friends there, and we visit often.  Nevertheless, siting places for clandestine meetings, udon noodles and murder was a problem.


Faithless Elector was situated primarily in Seattle, which I know well, having lived there for over 20 years.  Though I now live in Philadelphia, I have intimate knowledge of the University of Washington campus, the Pike Place Market and the Arboretum.  For the first book, I used Google Streetview to refresh my memory of a place, or to calculate distances.
But for the meetings and mayhem in Dark Network, I was forced to rely almost entirely on Google Streetview to find and establish the locations.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked when I was finally able to do research on the ground.

There were six sites I used in and around DC that I found using Streetview.  I was able to get to four of them. While visiting them suggested some tweaks and local color I had not contemplated before, I did not have to abandon them.  The parking lot in Bethesda, MD, (yes, I know--another parking garage!) is as spooky as I thought/hoped it would be.  The 'drops' my conspirators use in Rock Creek and Lansburgh Parks work very well.  At no point, fortunately, did I get to a site and think "Oh, no! There's a security camera right there."  Even better, I was able to confirm that there was a camera right where I wanted it...which I had first seen on Streeview.


In fact, one area near the DC Armory is better than I had hoped.

I'm in the home stretch for Dark Network.  When it's finally out, I will be very interested to hear from DC-area readers about whether the sites I've chosen 'work' for them.

 James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller, Publishers Weekly calls a “fast-moving topical thriller.”  Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” The sequel, Dark Network, is coming soon.

Faithless Elector, by James McCrone is available through Amazon.
If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center