Full Metal Sfumato: In Praise of The Underpraised Peter Abrahams
Jim Thomsen offers a critical appreciation of Peter Abrahams, whose prolific career as a crime novelist contains twists worthy of a crime novel (Edgar award winner, major film adaptation, disappearance and rebirth under a new genre and new name).
You don’t have to be a good person to be a good writer—history shows it’s better if you’re not—but you have to understand your badness.
END OF STORY, Peter Abrahams
One of the hardest things about being a fan of an artist is trying to explain your fandom in a way that persuades the person asking the question. Or worse, the person not asking the question. “He’s just my jam” or “You just have to read her and then you’ll get it” is not generally an argument that sends someone straight to the ATM and then to the bookstore.
So it is with me and Peter Abrahams; I could go on and on about how underappreciated I think he is despite three Edgar nominations and one win and one major-studio film adaptation (do yourself a favor and don’t see it). Or how his books are portable MFAs in show-don’t-tell, or how delicious his off-the-nose, reveals-as-much-in-what-it-withholds-as-it-reveals dialogue is, or how his every passage and page is infused with the “pleasurable uncertainty” that writing guru James Scott Bell says every novel must have, and did I mention the sfumato thing yet? And… wait, I’m not done. Why are you sidling toward the door?
OK. Enough telling. Let’s do some showing. Sometimes it’s as simple as this: If you like the following passage, you’ll probably like the works of Peter Abrahams. If you don’t, you probably won’t. From 1989’s PRESSURE DROP:
Matthias could no longer picture the face of Stepdaddy Number Two, but he retained a sparkling image of that two-tone Coupe de Ville, its red-and-white bodywork polished by Stepdaddy Number Two until it glowed. One Sunday morning an errant baseball went through its windshield while it was parked in the yard; the sound had gotten Stepdaddy Number Two out of bed and running outside in his undershorts, whirling his belt in the air.
Matthias’s legs had frozen at the sight. He hadn’t been able to run a step. Number Two had given him the kind of beating that was known in their neighborhood as ‘a good whipping.’ Matthias could picture the belt as vividly as the Coupe de Ville—snakeskin with a silver buckle. Once he’d woken in the middle of the night and seen his mother wearing it and nothing else.
I submit, based on my near-half-century of reading, that there isn’t one author in twenty, MFA graduate or autodidact, who could have started such a passage and resisted the impulse to put the moment on pause and start telling, with something like “Matthias was all alone in the world” or “Matthias couldn’t count on his mother to protect him.” To do, in other words, the work of the reader for the reader.
Work that readers who respect writers don’t want done for them. And yet, for any reader willing to make the investment, does this passage not invite the quickening of the Patterson-gobbler’s pulse? While presuming, and thus acknowledging, their ability and desire to interpret?
I think this is the reason he has what a friend of his, thriller author Joseph Finder, described to me as “the dreaded writer’s writer reputation”: In this time of the “twisty,” perpetual-pulse-point thriller, the works of Peter Abrahams treat the reader with perhaps more respect than they seem to want. And that’s why I think Peter Abrahams is underappreciated.
Why you never see his titles on the Most Anticipated lists by, say, CrimeReads. Why he’s never been nominated for an Anthony or any of the popularity-contest awards on the crime-fic circuit. Why he’s not one of the Cool Kids who twitter over themselves and each other on Twitter. Why he’s not the lampshady life of the Bouchercon and ThrillerFest hotel-bar party.
He just picks and shovels his way, every day, from one work to the next, and does it with subtle delight and a deceptive sense of glide: the feet don’t move much, or seem to, but the hands and the things in them are in constant motion, and where did all that blood come from?
That brings me to another passage, from 2007’s END OF STORY, in which a teacher in a prison writing program realizes she’s beholding a rare talent in one of her pupils. Because that pupil is Abrahams’ creation, this is, essentially, Abrahams on Abrahams:
Ivy read Harrow’s piece again, and then once more. It got better and better. So many good things: alive on the page, for one thing, pictures you could see without effort, details that stuck in your mind; plus ideas popping up all over the place—and ideas popping up all over the place was right at the top of Professor Smallian’s list of what makes the very best writing.
And what else? A kind of confidence, a confidence, Ivy realized at that moment, that was missing in her own writing. ... Ivy had read Professor Smallian’s three novels, more than once. He wrote with confidence, too, lots of it. But—and now she was admitting it to herself for the first time—there were passages, and not a few, where she’d had to push herself to keep going, like reading uphill. There was nothing uphill about Harrow’s writing. A short piece, yes, and not even finished, but: airborne.
Trust me on this: you gotta read the short story that informs this passage. And you gotta respect the author by buying the book that contains it. And then, after you read it, ask yourself: Is your writing airborne? Confident? Does it pulsate with pleasurable uncertainty?
Every single Abrahams novel does, without exception. That sfumato thing I mentioned? It’s a term used by Abrahams in his novel HARD RAIN:
“The sun had set; the sodium moon had risen, but fog was rolling in, dulling its glow and spreading an orange sfumato through the night.” Of course I had to look that up. Wouldn’t you? Such a cool word. Sfumato is sort of a companion to the far more commonly deployed chiaroscuro, and is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the definition of a form in painting without abrupt outline by the blending of one tone into another.” I think of Peter Abrahams’ voice on the page as a literary analogue; or perhaps it better applies to his ability to assume another form and let the first one recede into the fog.
And speaking of receding into the fog, I guess this is where I should mention that Peter Abrahams doesn’t exist anymore.
I could go on and on about how underappreciated I think he is despite three Edgar nominations and one win and one major-studio film adaptation.
Oh, in corporeal form, he’s still around, happily; I even met him long after he disappeared. He turned seventy-three on June 28, his latest novel drops July 7, and he’s more prolific than ever.
But he hasn’t published as Peter Abrahams in a decade, the year he won his Edgar for Best Young Adult Novel. It might be a stretch to say that Peter Abrahams is commercial poison under that name, but according to crime-genre writer and critic Sarah Weinman, who uncovered his well-concealed new name, his midlist career was “the opposite of brand-name,” his sales were declining in spite of strong critical support, and he decided to try something new to stay viable in the eyes of newly risk-averse publishers.
Thus was born Spencer Quinn, author of the bestselling Chet-and-Bernie mysteries. In many ways, they’re anti-Abrahams novels. For one, they’re written in the first-person, or maybe first-canine would be more appropriate, since they’re narrated by a dog. For another, they’re series novels.
For yet another, they’re cozy—with titles like HEART OF BARKNESS, the tenth and newest title, how could they not be, no matter how much Abrahams insists they’re not? What else? They’re funny, while Abrahams’s novels, and only some of them, sit on the blackly satiric end of the comedy spectrum. (No Chet-and-Bernie story would be complete without Chet puzzling over idioms like “hungry like a horse” or “cat got your tongue” or “don’t count your chickens,” or Bernie lamenting his lamentable investment in Hawaiian pants or something equally silly.)
The Chet-and-Bernie books, or the Bowser-and-Birdie or Ruff-vs.-Fluff subsidiary series that Spencer Quinn writes for children, are not entirely my jam. But I read them for their uniquely Abrahams touches, which he could no more disguise than could the Beatles tour the bar circuit in costume as Randy and the Rockets.
And I’m happy that he’s happy and doing well at a time when a lot of authors with similar longevity and similar Bookscan sales histories aren’t. And he seems to get a kick out of being the dog guy within the cat-crazed cozy/traditional mystery world, and the love affair with his fan base, which engages with him at @chetthedog and elsewhere, is definitely a reciprocal one.
And Stephen King, who once wrote a slightly different story about a dog with a name that begins with C, is enthusiastically on board. Said he of OF MUTTS AND MEN, the latest Chet-and-Bernie outing: “I have been a Chet-and-Bernie fan from the start, and this is the best one yet—suspenseful, laugh-out-loud funny in places, and surprisingly tender. This is without a doubt the most original mystery series currently available.”
And without a doubt about as far away as Peter Abrahams could get from being Peter Abrahams—or at least the version of him whose first novel, 1980’s THE FURY OF RACHEL MONETTE, was everything a Chet-and-Bernie novel is not: grim, chilled, spare, exquisitely paced and pitched, the equivalent of the perfect aperitif or after-dinner cognac for a literary-crime dinner party. (Stephen King had long ago praised Abrahams as “my favorite American suspense novelist.”)
So I read the Chet-and-Bernies, and Bridies-and-Bowsers, and Ruffs-and-Fluffs, and moderately enjoy them, and like a true addict, go back to the harder stuff for the deeper high.
If I’ve somehow managed to step out of my own fanboy fog and persuaded you to give Abrahams a go (or another go; I often hear from friends things like “Oh, yeah, years back I read, um, I forget the title, and I think I remember liking it”), then, from among his forty-some titles, any of these is a good place to start.
END OF STORY (2007). I realize that this particular moment is not the most plausible time to celebrate a Ye Olde White Male Author, and my only defense is Abrahams himself. A good number of his novels feature female protagonists, and maybe I’m not allowed to say this as a white male myself, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence of the male gaze in Abrahams’ female POVs; a woman describing her breasts to herself in her bedroom mirror is about the least Abrahams thing I can think of.
That, plus I suspect, if you’re a writer, you’ll get sucked into the deliciously dark satire of this novel’s premise: Ivy Seidel, an MFA graduate, has all the schooling but none of the sfumato, so for the money, she teaches in a prison-writing program. There she mistakes an inmate’s wild literary talent—and looks—for goodness of character and, perhaps, innocence for the crime for which he’s been convicted. Things happen fast from there, like murders. But it’s all material, right?
THE RIGHT SIDE (2017). Peter Abrahams may be gone, but as we who read crime fiction know, not all bodies stay buried. After seven years in the ground, Abrahams lifted a hand out of the boneyard dirt with this grim story of a physically and emotionally damaged Iraq War vet following her often-violent impulses on a cross-country road trip.
This must have been a bit awkward for Abrahams’ publisher: it was about as far away from a charming, chuckle-inducing Chet-and-Bernie tale as Iraq is from Washington state (where about half the novel happens), even though a dog appears about halfway through. But, as we all know, publishers follow the money, and so this Abrahams novel was released under the Quinn brand. It’s a great novel, but beware: it bites. The dog is an asshole. Though definitely my kind of asshole. Yours too, maybe.
HARD RAIN (1988). Abrahams’ first several novels constitute a symphonic career movement that could be called For Some, the War Never Ended. Here, the war happened in Vietnam, but it happened as much in America, too, as well all know.
And when a long-vanished prisoner-of-war somehow makes his way back to the States, he’s bent on payback for the people he blames for putting him in harm’s way. Such fury often involves collateral damage, and here it’s L.A. art restorer Jessie Shapiro and her missing daughter, the product of a past marriage to a musician with a mysterious past. All paths lead to the site of the Woodstock festival for a crowded cast that includes American intelligence types, Russians, hippies and academics… oh, and an unforgettable cameo appearance by Jimi Hendrix’s electric guitar.
OBLIVION (2005). Joyce Carol Oates, in The New Yorker, praised this novel—and its creator—far better than I ever could. I certainly wish I’d thought of this line: “Unlike most suspense fiction, which operates on the practical principle that swift, cinematic scenes will keep readers turning pages without lingering to wonder about verisimilitude, originality, or, indeed, literary worth, Abrahams’s novels are gratifyingly attentive to psychological detail, richly atmospheric, layered in ambiguity.” Or this one: “Peter Abrahams’s strongest novels seem to suggest, despite their allegiance to genre, a fascination with something beyond mere form.” I’ll add just this: Although OBLIVION, in form, is Abrahams’ take on the L.A. private-eye novel, it is a gleefully perverse take. How unbound to form do you have to be to set half of an L.A. private-eye novel in the decidedly un-Ross Macdonaldy desert town of Barstow?
BULLET POINT (2010). Think of how hard it would be to win praise in 2020 for a Young Adult novel written in the third person. Or the past tense. Or without an intensely voicey interior voice, full of coded slang and emotional splatter.
Or with a mostly adult cast. I don’t how know how well they connected with a generation of teens just starting to see Snapchat as a preferred story form, but both this YA and the one for which Abrahams won the Edgar, REALITY CHECK, are equally good, and equally benefit from Abrahams’ old-school form.
But why not give a little love to the slightly less praised of the pair? It’s got a teen boy on his own in a small town, an older woman who’s crazy for him, and a birth father in prison for a murderous crime he may not have committed. Both say they feel deeply for him.
So why are they avoiding his questions? And how high might it get, the pile of bodies from the past and present they appear to be hiding behind?
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE (2005). One of the fun things about being an Abrahams completist is seeing elements of one of his novels embedded in another, like the absorbed-in-utero twin that comes back to life in Stephen King’s THE DARK HALF. For example, Sonny Racine, the imprisoned father of BULLET POINT, feels like he started life as Vance Harrow, the imprisoned literary talent from END OF STORY.
Here Ingrid Levin-Hill, the 13-year-old heroine of this first of three YA series novels, started life as Ruby, the smart Sherlock Holmes-loving heroine of THE TUTOR, an Abrahams adult novel from 2002. This YA is sweeter and more innocent than that book, but not too much, for there’s murder afoot in the Connecticut town of Echo Falls, and Ingrid happily blunders into the middle of it. This first of three Echo Falls tales is dark, but not so much that it couldn’t be clipped out of a Scholastic order form in any American middle school.