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Dark Passages: New starts and second chances

Bradford Morrow's 'The Diviner's Tale' and Jed Rubenfeld's 'The Death Instinct' have a surer footing and a better sense of the audience than the authors' previous books.

January 08, 2011|By Sarah Weinman | Special to the Los Angeles Times

Book publishing has always had its cutthroat qualities, though by comparison to other businesses — say, Wall Street or the film industry — it is positively lamb-like. But what's become a more common refrain is that when a book's release trails months of hype — and if its sales don't live up to that hype — it can be a long time before the author returns with a book ready to overcome the perceived deficit of a disappointing BookScan sales number.

The emphasis on one and out is increasingly familiar in crime fiction, and there are several solutions, obvious or ingenious, to choose from. Publish the next book under a new pen name, either as an open secret (Katy Munger's reinvention as Chaz McGee) or a tightly guarded one (no one's cracked the curious case of John Twelve Hawks, at least not officially). Ally yourself with a brand-name author, as Grant Blackwood has in co-writing Tom Clancy's newest Jack Ryan thriller. Or do what many mid-list writers with disappointing early sales tracks — such as Michael Ledwidge, Liza Marklund and soon, Neil McMahon — have done: Jump on the James Patterson co-writing bandwagon gig. The sales go way up, the profile grows higher, and the likelihood of spinning off on your own to great success increases: Just ask Andrew Gross or Peter de Jonge, former Patterson collaborators.

Sometimes the solution is not so cut and dried, especially if the author's previous work never comfortably fit within commercial confines or didn't live up to its Next Big Thing billing in the U.S. despite success abroad. That's why two new books by Bradford Morrow and Jed Rubenfeld converge to some degree with respect to publishing histories — but stand a good chance of finding wider audiences in 2011.

Morrow was, perhaps, a strange choice as a potential commercial powerhouse. He was, and remains, the editor of Conjunctions, a widely admired biannual literary journal with a smallish circulation and has published novels that followed a similar trajectory.

But a decade and a half ago, Morrow's then-new-novel, "Giovanni's Gift," became the focus of a prominent New York Magazine profile by Eric Konigsberg, tracking the path from manuscript completion to publication. Ultimately, Morrow's novel did not reach the wider readership he and his publisher hoped for, and his next book, "Ariel's Crossing" (2002), reached his previous devoted but smaller audience.

But a few factors make Morrow's new novel, "The Diviner's Tale" (An Otto Penzler Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 311 pp., $26), stand out as a more commercial endeavor. There is a dead body in the novel's opening chapters — even if the person who stumbles onto it on her morning walk, Cassandra Brooks, turns out to have imagined it as a near-premonition (the girl in question turns up alive, albeit injured).

Mysteries abound, in large part because Cassandra's inherited skill as a dowser (the term preferred by those who discover objects with the help of a Y-shaped divining rod) helps her uncover truths others would rather keep buried.

And Morrow couples evocative prose (A "beetle-branched tree" Cassandra spots "looked for all the world like a photographic negative of a lightning mass, St. Elmo's Fire done up in black") with steadily increasing momentum as we learn what lies at the root of Cassandra's divinations … and what really happened to the injured girl and her visionary dead doppelgänger.

With "The Diviner's Tale," Morrow demonstrates, as many others have and ought to, that one need not sacrifice literary chops for more commercial leanings when the two are easily and readily combined.

*

Yale University law professor Jed Rubenfeld couldn't be accused of literary grandeur in his debut 2006 thriller "The Interpretation of Murder," which was accompanied by the sort of advance marketing campaign authors dream of — and that publishers gnash their teeth over when it doesn't produce enough sales to earn back a hefty advance.

But Rubenfeld was by no means down and out, due to spectacular sales overseas (thank "The Richard & Judy Show" in the U.K., to start) and a stronger life in paperback. But a new publisher — and a new writing approach — was needed for his new follow-up, "The Death Instinct" (Riverhead: 465 pp., $26.95), and his change in strategy has more than paid off.

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