Much as we tend to play up our Hon Blievers, Book Things, and park-laden, neurosis-free psyche, few towns teem with morbid curiosity quite like Charm City. From Mr. Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade up through David Simon’s “The Wire” cast and The Sun’s exquisite police blotter, Baltimore has long produced fictive body exhumers and, perhaps more, an audience smitten with the dusty, matchlit corners of criminal activity. White flight, abandoned neighborhoods, and a lately discarded status as America’s murder capital underpin residents’ understanding of home; unsurprisingly, a rabid local market exists for true crime and its clinical, fact-bearing explication. Building on its author’s near-decade in the local police department, Michael A. Wood, Jr.’s Eliot (self-published) honors that curiosity, hitting very Baltimorean forensic notes even as it serves up a shaggy genre thriller.
Pitched as a sort of anti-“Dexter” (a series that, for that very reason, is mercilessly roasted throughout), Eliot follows three troubled policemen: Eliot Watts, a sergeant-in-waiting driven to serial-killing criminals by his daughter’s murder; Noah Faulkner, a pudgy detective pursuing said vigilante cop; and Darnell Redd, an officer blackmailed into drug- and gun-running for a neighborhood kingpin. Their journeys thread and, as the plot barrels forward, Wood offers cop drama’s usual thrills (violent run-ins, revenge fantasies, well-described artillery), as well as its fascination with broken idealists; both Redd and Watts, though broadly drawn, mesmerize by simple dint of their two wholly different nervous breakdowns. Eliot fits comfortably within the last decade’s TV antihero deluge (“Dexter,” “The Shield,” et al.) and its author, quite familiar with a police force of “aggressive, Type A, [sic] personalities,” sells its characters’ ethical No Man’s Land with authority.
Wood has a talent for a good twist, as well – the book’s denouement, quick and ingenious, frustrates with Tom Clancy-like brio. But Eliot’s most compelling kicks come from its author’s greater, axe-grinding purpose: a samizdat-style excoriation of the B.P.D. and its chaotic-yet-ritualized inertia. Even when Eliot’s prose and plot fly off their rails, Wood’s OCD attention to (and undisguised disgust with) his former gig’s unclosed loopholes and unenforceable codes holds a certain compelling prurience; story aside, Wood’s litany of beats and streets gives even “The Wire,” perhaps the most detail-drunk crime series ever conceived, a run for its finely observed money. Wood can generate a serious confidential buzz and, for both crime fiction buffs and their true-crime alternates, that alone should make Eliot worth the price of admission.
While Wood’s novel plays its forensics safe, absorbing the fact fetishism of true crime into genre fiction’s plot-centrism, Mikita Brottman’s Thirteen Girls (Nine-Banded Books) tries something a bit more disorienting: it refracts them. Inspired by real-life serial killings, Girls’ sequence of short fictions skips stylized bloodshed, instead using bureaucratic forms (e.g., psychoanalytic case studies, Q&A transcripts, police reports) and monologues from each murder’s fringes to explore the impossibility of real closure. The resulting tales, abrupt and dark, beg readers to reckon with the unexplored margins abutting true crime’s stacks of evidence. In “Emi,” a particularly raw example, a hopeless mother named Janet muses on the social rules of having a murdered daughter:
She knows Emi is dead, but she is embarrassed just to do nothing. People would have found it strange, suspicious. It would have looked as though she didn’t care. So she makes flyers, like the officer advised… Soon there are flyers all over Oakland: Have You Seen This Girl? Janet sees the picture of Emi everywhere she goes.
Later in the story, Janet finds a bone-chilling new frame of reference for her loss; “[the police] say we are seeing crimes today that have not happened before…people taking multiple lives with no apparent motive,” she notes. And, as story after story soaks readers in a similar awkward aura – “Alice” ends with a survivor’s active denial, while “Ellen” wraps up its helpless psychiatrist’s log with a cruel “No follow up” – Brottman’s method brings the whole rubbernecking enterprise of true-crime writing, including her own, into question. “[In] real life, there is no payoff” the author says in her afterword. “The truth about dead girls is this: In the end, they are all forgotten.” With its sidelong glance at a whole sample set of said girls, Thirteen Girls makes for fascinating fictive testimony to that uncomfortable truth. (Editor’s note: Brottman formerly contributed a column called “Hidden Baltimore” to BaltimoreFishbowl.)
Following Girls’ publishing bow in August, Brottman has made some local rounds, most visibly at the October 20th iteration of authors Jen Michalki and Michael Kimball’s 510 Reading Series as part of the CityLit Project’s October Literary Arts Week. That week – which included Publishing Genius Press’s annual Literature Party and a Baltimore Review “revue” – has unfortunately come and gone, but plenty of Baltimore writerly goodness is still on the horizon. Witness:
+ Local lit mag Artichoke Haircut’s reading series, the always raucous You’re Allowed, will invade Dionysus (8 E. Preston St. in Mount Vernon) once more on November 1st. This month’s installment will feature a host of local writers reading the work of recently deceased poet Chris Toll. Toll, a beloved (and longtime) member of Baltimore’s writing community, passed away on September 27th of natural causes; a moving, posthumous digital festschrift for him – composed of eulogies, art, and snatches of his distinctive verse – can be found here.
+ WORMS, the brainchild of Baltimore Fishbowl co-conspirator and journeyman poet R.M. O’Brien, returns November 13 with a whole slew of excellent locals, including Big Ray author Michael Kimball, Kim Gek Lin Short, Fitz Fitzgerald, Alejandro Ventura, and Jonas Kyle-Sidell. As always, the festivities will crowd Station North’s Metro Gallery at 8:00 P.M. WORMS has a large and devoted following, so get there early and nab a seat!
+ Former U.S. Poet Laureate and famed creative writing prof Mark Strand will grace Johns Hopkins University’s Shriver Hall at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, November 7th. As with WORMS, fans should try to show up early; between JHU’s welter of undergrad curiosity-seekers and Strand’s devoted local and D.C.-borne fan base, this will almost certainly be a jam-packed reading.
+ The aforementioned 510 Reading Series, now officially cruising for the season, will serve up its trademark bouillabaisse of fiction writers at Hampden’s Minás Gallery on Saturday, November 17. As usual, the reading will start at 5:00 p.m.; featured wordsmiths will include Amber Sparks, Matt Bell, Robert Kloss, and Julian Berengaut.
+ While not strictly limited to readings proper, Wham City’s Lecture Series – lately resurrected after a long hiatus – habitually showcases local writers, including Dirge for an Imaginary World author Matthew Smith and erstwhile director/blogger Alexandra Gilwit, on its free-form, infotaining stage. The series’ last 2012 event, which will find artful gadfly Amy Harmon discussing “Self-Esteem for Weird-Wads” and Showbeast co-creator/theater maven Mason Ross wending his way around “The Historical Vampire,” will take place on November 7th at the Yellow Sign Theater (located in the old Zodiac building, off North Ave. and Charles next to Club Charles).
Finally, this month’s Lit Parade would be entirely incomplete without a Baltimore Fishbowl nod and kudos to local fiction writer Lauren van den Berg, who just landed a novel-and-story-collection deal with international publishing giant Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux. A graduate of Emerson College’s fiction M.F.A. program, van den Berg first gained national notoriety with 2009’s surrealist collection What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books), as well as high-profile anthology turns in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, The Best New American Voices 2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV. In September, she released There Will No More Good Nights Without Good Nights (Origami Zoo Press), a trippy, heart-rending chapbook of short stories; given the good news, it reads not unlike a promising band’s deservedly hyped EP, outlining van den Berg’s truly inimitable imagery (e.g. cannibals playing oboes, children in foil spacesuits), delivering short-but-sweet fictive hits, and covering a dazzling amount of territory over a scant 36 pages. Those looking for a fresh literary voice with a surrealist kick would be well-advised to pick it up at Origami Zoo Press’s website. A sample of van den Berg’s wares (including Nights entry “Parakeet”) can be found here.
The Baltimore Lit Parade is sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop.
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