Friday, December 08, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Lightning Rule"

Brett Ellen Block's debut collection of short stories, Destination Known, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize in 2001. She is also the author of The Grave of God's Daughter (2004), which Publisher's Weekly called, "A haunting, evocative first novel.... Intoxicating."

Her first mystery, The Lightning Rule, hit the bookstores in October.

I asked Brett to apply the "page 69 test" to her book. Here is her reply:
Tests. Never did like them. I don't even like taking eye exams. Too much pressure to get things right. Not surprising then that I had a pang of worry while I flicked through my book, anxious to see what awaited me on page 69. But I lucked out. It was Chapter Eleven. Insert sigh of relief here.

That relief turned to shock though when I realized I didn't remember writing the opening scene. So much for my memory. Maybe that's why tests aren't my forte.

I reread the page and finally recalled why I'd mentioned the main character's mother. Her death was one of many hairline fractures that crippled the relationship between the lead, Detective Emmett, and his brother, Edward, who recently returned home from Vietnam in a wheelchair. The friction in their worsening relationship mirrors the racial friction that's threatening to destroy their hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The historic race riots that swept through there in 1967 turned neighbor against neighbor, begging the question: what is "brotherly love?"

Emmett is a white cop struggling to solve the murder of a black boy and Otis Fossum is a black witness who Emmett protected from mob retribution, a decision that made him an outcast in his precinct. In return for that favor, Fossum is escorting Emmett through the projects to keep him safe during the riots. Their willingness to help each other speaks to the book’s major themes, so as for the test, I’d give this page a passing grade. It may not be indicative of the sense of action or intensity, but hopefully, it does showcase the novel’s poignancy.

Emmett found Otis Fossum pacing the lobby like an expectant father. He reminded Emmett of himself when his mother had her stroke. He and Edward had been stationed outside her hospital room, wearing down the linoleum in the hall, counting the minutes until the doctor came to tell them their mother was going to be okay, that she would make it. She wasn't and she didn't. Every hope and dream that Emmett had longed to fulfill for his mother soon died along with her. Neither he nor Edward cried when the doctor told them. Not for lack of sorrow, but for fear of it and the floodgates it might open. Edward had held off to see if Emmett would tear up, to see if it would be okay to cry. That was how it had been when they were younger, Edward always cautious, yielding to his lead. It was the first time in years his brother had done that and the last since then.

"I was waiting on ya, Mr. Emmett. To see if you needed anything else."

Kindness didn't come easy to Fossum, and he quickly became self-conscious.

"You didn't have to, Otis."

"That's why the call 'em favors, right?"
Many thanks to Brett for the input.

To read an excerpt from The Lightning Rule, click here.

Click here to read Brett's essay, "The Story Behind The Lightning Rule."

Among the early reviews:
"Martin Emmett is hardly the first stubborn detective in fiction, but Block does a superb job of giving him flesh and bone in a gritty, historically rich narrative. Another appearance would be welcome. Many cuts above the typical police procedural."

"Evocative...(a) vivid portrayal of a city where racial tensions have escalated from a steady simmer to a raging boil."

"A flawless historical backdrop..."
--Publisher's Weekly
Sarah Weinman tagged The Lightning Rule as a Pick of the Week.

For a Q & A with Brett--including the answer to "What was your big break?"--click here.

Visit Brett Ellen Block's official website here.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue