To all Helen Mirkin fans who haven’t read “Preventable Tragedies” – now is your chance to catch up. Three-day sale is now active.
Happy reading and happy new year!
Cover Art: Assaf Shtilman
Hoopoe Publishing and Ruth Shidlo are pleased to announce that Preventable Tragedies (Kindle edition) is available for pre-order via Amazon.
Kindle Release Date: August 12, 2017
Print POD: to be announced (awaiting proof)
Cover art: Assaf Shtilman
The third book in the DI Helen Mirkin series, Preventable Tragedies, awaits the finishing touches of cover artist Assaf Shtilman to see the light of day. If all goes well, it should be out by August 15th, 2017 at the very latest.
Although each book in the series can be read as a stand-alone, readers interested in DI Helen Mirkin and her personal development may wish to read the books in the order written, so as to best follow her process. However the main story plot is unique for each installment in the series. Whereas the first book was set in a general hospital, and the second in an opera boot camp, events in Preventable Tragedies span three countries: Israel, Greece, and Portugal.
DI Helen Mirkin is called to assist a worldwide inquiry into the distribution and sale of counterfeit medication. Is it being used to fund terrorism, and if so, how? Mirkin and her colleagues follow up potential leads both in Israel and abroad, including in Greece and Portugal.
Meanwhile, a potential whistleblower in the nutritional supplement industry is murdered, while a medical outbreak at a leading hospital garners attention. Coincidence?
Through-out the investigation, Mirkin struggles with her personal life, as she seeks to raise a family of her own.
Cover Art: Assaf Shtilman
Based on feedback by one of my readers, I realized that the original cover (see down), which I absolutely love, does not shout “thriller” to the potential reader. Its impressionistic and mysterious tone (based on a Renoir) and the antiquated font I had chosen, were out-of-character and simply did not align themselves with the covers one tends to see on popular, mass-market thrillers published in the twenty-first century, such as those written by Jonathan Kellerman, his son Jesse Kellerman, or Robin Cook, to name but a few. Thus, the above cover for The Rosebush Murders was born out of a need to match the narrative and the way the story was told (in other words, its genre) to the actual cover.
Over a period of a few weeks or months, I hunted for images that might lend themselves to a new cover, and a seasoned and patient graphic artist showed me what I might achieve with these photos/pictures. Although I did not always know how to formulate what it was I wanted, I trusted I would know when the fit was good-enough. This resulted in our going back to the drawing board time and again, although overall, there were some good mock covers. I also plied my friends and family with different versions of the new cover, and elicited their feedback, to varying degrees.
Finally, I decided to consult with Assaf Shtilman, a friend with a prolific, constantly growing collection of photos of roses and other flowers, many of which I had seen on Facebook, and absolutely loved. He showed me his online collection of paintings as well and told me he had once done a cover for a friend. I was delighted when he agreed to do one for my book, The Rosebush Murders, and most likely the other books in the Helen Mirkin series, time permitting. A software engineer, he has many hobbies, and a vibrant life.
With his keen eye for detail and ability to conceptualize the information conveyed by the visual images used in book covers, my talented friend and colleague, Assaf Shtilman, walked me through several types of covers, including those depicting specific scenes, and the more “symbolic” ones. Together we perused novels I had collected over the years and Googled various authors, to get a sense of what was out there and what might work for me. I suggested various elements that we might use. This led to Assaf’s out-of-the-box offer to paint an original cover, as it was too complicated to either construct it out of existing photographs, or create a scene that could then be photographed.
The result: the idea of a painting of a macabre mobile, one that incorporated some of the elements I wanted to use (e.g., a rose, DNA, a gun, a gloved hand), as well as Assaf’s image of the firing gun, which was based on cartoon-like images of guns and toy guns such as might hang from a mobile.
We hope you like the new cover as much as the old.
Cover Art: Patty Henderson
Towards the publication of the first Helen Mirkin novel, The Rosebush Murders, my dream was to enclose a CD along with the print book, so the reader could actually hear the music alluded to. I even imagined myself singing some of the arias, which at the time, I was preparing for a recital. But given copyright issues it has remained just that – a dream. I had already forked up a considerable sum for merely quoting a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s poems and Leonard Bernstein’s music in my book, and was on a shoestring budget.
I then considered posting Youtube links to my Author Facebook Pages, but, here again, the more I researched it, the more I ran into copyright issues. It seemed as though one needed to be a copyright lawyer to successfully negotiate the “does and don’ts” of linking to Youtube videos of famous artists singing operas referred to in the series, now enriched by the publication of Murder in the Choir. What I managed to do, after sitting up for two frenzied nights, was a Youtube of my own, a trailer for Murder in the Choir. Although not technically-minded and hence, finding it quite a challenge, at times exasperatingly so, in the end I can say that, overall, I enjoyed it. It was more fun than paying for a professionally-made one, and in any case, I wouldn’t have known where to start, when faced with preparing a brief. Trained to think in terms of fight-flight-freeze as a body-mind trauma therapist, I applied it to the story I had written, hence the visceral animal imagery. Luckily, I recently had visited the Natural History Museum in London with my godson on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah, so I had loads of pictures readily available in my photo library. The result: the above trailer, which, I may add, I am curious how you will receive. (Drop me a line via my Facebook Page, where I have just posted it. I need your feedback before ever embarking on such an enterprise again!)
Thus, dear reader, I can only urge you to look up what I hereby refer to as “Helen’s music” on your own – you can find it on Youtube directly. I believe that immersing yourself in Helen’s music may bring alive more vividly some of the passages in my books, for example, the Leonard Bernstein song at the beginning of The Rosebush Murders (p. 35), that starts with the words, “My mother says that babies come in bottles …” or even the cave scene with the sorceress and witches (Scene 2) from Dido and Aeneas, to which Helen associates at a specific point during the investigation (p. 227), an association followed by one to Macbeth. Parenthetically, I recommend the recording with Janet Baker as Dido, conducted by Anthony Lewis (English Chamber Orchestra & The St. Anthony Singers). The sorceress is sung by Monica Sinclair.
Music adds a whole other dimension to our experience, and I usually choose the pieces I cite with care. I like to think that music (and poetry) plays an important role in my books, although I would be hard-pressed to formulate precisely what it is, “to spit out all the butt ends of my days and ways” (Eliot). Be it as it may, I trust Helen’s musical associations when they come up from her unconscious (as in the latter scene), and enjoy her forays into the music world, as both singer, detective, and increasingly, as we shall see, in her personal life. I am being deliberately vague here, to leave the reader with an untarnished reading experience.
A previous version of this article appeared in Pulse, July 1st, 2016
I often see books advertised as psychological thrillers, and have used this term to describe my Helen Mirkin series. I feel that as both a psychologist and writer in the thriller, mystery and suspense genre, I can thus describe my work. But what are psychological thrillers, and how might they differ from “regular” ones? I will attempt to address this, and welcome your thoughts as well.
For starters, I looked up the definition in Wikipedia:
“Thriller is a broad genre of literature, film and television, having numerous subgenres. Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety.”
I am tempted to add that music also performs this function admirably, as does theatre, and would like to highlight what I consider to be the queen of all performing arts – opera. Opera combines elements of storytelling and drama with music and often dance, and it can certainly evoke mood, including one fraught with suspense and anxiety. Consider, for example, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, based on the Henry James novel and libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Does it qualify as a thriller?
So what is a thriller, and what makes it a psychological one?
Again, I first turn to Wikipedia, the modern day encyclopedia of cyberspace, that library of Babel. Among other things, it states that the psychological thriller is “a thriller story which emphasizes the unstable mental and emotional states of its characters.” Moreover, it is described as a sub-genre of the thriller, “with similarities to Gothic and detective fiction in the sense of sometimes having a “dissolving sense of reality”, moral ambiguity, and complex and tortured relationships between obsessive and pathological characters. Psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of and overlap with mystery, drama, action, and horror (particularly psychological horror). They are usually books or films.” Examples given of writers and film directors in this genre included Jonathan Kellerman (a psychologist), as well as Alfred Hitchcock, so I am in good company of two “masters” of the genre, am familiar with their work, and have for the most part, enjoyed it. Others cited included Henry James, Patricia Highsmith, and Stephen King. I am surprised Ingmar Bergman was not mentioned.
For the most part, literary fiction deals with characters undergoing emotional ups and downs as they deal with challenging events, as otherwise, we tend to find them unidimensional, uninspiring or even boring. We become emotionally involved and drawn into a story when it somehow touches us, and triggers memory traces of familiar experiences. We may resist reading it when the experiences depicted are completely alien to us, and we are not motivated to befriend them. Generally speaking, via its focus on dramatic action rather than on in-depth revelations of inner states (e.g., thoughts and feelings), the thriller introduces a certain pace or tempo to the unfolding of the story. The sequence of events and the unexpected twists of the plot (e.g., conflict) move the story along so that it achieves page-turning thriller status. Thus, I would be hard-pressed to consider Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain or Joseph and His Brothers a psychological thriller, although both authors demonstrate outstanding psychological acumen.
When the thriller is characterized by psychological themes that get into the nitty gritty of the protagonist’s sensations, thoughts and feelings (or those of other characters) – the pendulation (moving back and forth, like a pendulum – a word coined by Peter Levine) between trauma and healing vortices (or if you will, between the forces of destruction and the life force) becomes more pronounced. How do we know this? We get activated when our protagonist is challenged i.e., our heart beats more quickly as we hurriedly turn the pages to see how he or she is faring. We breath (exhale) with relief when safety is reached or order is temporarily restored within the fictional world we are immersed in. This “discharge” allows our emotional container to grow, and now we have more room for, and can better withstand the next cycle or twist in the storyline.
The quicker the pace, the greater the rhythm of the pendulation provided by the author, which is matched by the reader’s autonomous nervous system (ANS). This parallel process presumably involves mirror neurons. As we read a thriller, our ANS may work overtime in its efforts to continue to maintain homeostasis between the movements (configured as waves) of the sympathetic (arousal/stress related) and parasympathetic (relaxing) branches of the ANS.
Some readers may be overwhelmed by the events depicted in the book they are reading, which may trigger memory traces of “undischarged” traumatic events from their life experiences. This may result in activation of the autonomous nervous system (e.g., a pounding heart, a pulsating carotid artery, increased blood pressure, shallow/faster/more constricted breathing, clammy hands, tightening of the stomach or chest, etc.) The reader unconsciously attempts to titrate the amount of “trauma vortex” his (or her) nervous system can deal with at that precise moment by rhythmically pendulating back and forth between the “trauma vortex and “healing vortex” (see previous posts that deal with self-regulation.) The earlier readers are able to notice these signs in themselves (or in their partners), the easier it may be to cope with this activation (via discharge of excess survival energy) rather than to be managed by it destructively (e.g., picking a fight with our partner, devouring a bar of chocolate.)
Most, if not all literature, but more so the thriller/psychological thriller – presumably because of its tempo – allows the reader to immerse himself (or herself) in a generally acceptable amount of anxiety – after all, it is the book’s characters, and not the reader proper, who are dealing with the anxiety-provoking themes (e.g., separation anxiety, fear of object loss, fear of loss of love, annihilation anxiety). On the part of the reader, there is a dual awareness (perhaps made possible by a creative dissociation) which provides the transitional space between fantasy and reality. To the extent that the protagonist meets the challenges he or she is faced with and survives, so does the reader – this provides a vicarious sense of mastery. When the challenges the characters are dealing with come too close to comfort, some readers may associatively move on to recall how they dealt with similar situations and survived.
There is usually a spontaneous yet unique branching out of associations – the resonance of these memory traces within each reader may lead to the healing vortex.
Depending on what happens next, the physical act of putting the book down may be another way of initiating the movement from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, for example when the reader goes off to do something that makes him (or her) feel good and resourced (e.g., go for a swim) and in thus doing, naturally releases some of the activation that was building up in his or her nervous system (body/mind). Alternatively, he or she may move on to a cognitive task that takes them out of the felt sense of sensations altogether – taking a break may be a way of “grounding” by leaving the sensations of the “felt sense” (Gendlin,1982) and immersing oneself in something else that involves the neocortex, such as making a shopping list or deciding which clothes to put in the washer.
Via the linear act of reading, with its potential for putting the book down and taking a break, there occurs a process of “cutting” the literary narrative into tolerable pieces.
In sum, there are various ways to break down the literary narrative into small pieces that can be digested, and we usually do this unconsciously, as we naturally pendulate from the trauma vortex to the healing vortex, or if necessary, simply ground ourselves. If we find ourselves getting activated to such an extent that on our own, we are unable to release the survival energy recruited by our sympathetic system to deal with the vicarious challenges posed by the book we were reading (or other work of art, such as a play, opera, film), then perhaps it is time to reach out for a significant other and share how we are feeling.
When our ANS is overwhelmed and no longer discharges enough on its own, we can help the body/mind resume its innate discharge of excess survival energy. The discharge functions as an “all-clear” sign to the brain’s innate warning system (amygdala) and allows the body to stop pumping out stress hormones and to reset itself (see my body/mind posts for more information.)
Whereas in The Rosebush Murders, DI Helen Mirkin is forced to walk the unending corridors of City Hospital and interview physicians seemingly intent on furthering their own careers at the expense of their patients, the investigation described in Murder in the Choir takes place against the backdrop of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ music world, a world we have already encountered (and to some extent familiarized ourselves with) in the first novel. It is not every day that a musically-minded detective has access to this world, and such an investigation has its price.
DI Mirkin has a personal stake in the investigation: the death of Araceli Pena touches her more than she may be aware of, or care to admit. For if until now, music had provided the detective with a refuge of sorts, an oasis to which she could venture when needing to distance herself from her grimy profession, the soprano’s death and its repercussions, threaten the existence of this transitional space between fantasy and reality.
Death is no longer an event to be negotiated when conveniently located on stage, that is, an [predictable] occurrence that simultaneously touches the lives of both operatic characters and the actual audience ensconced in the safety of their seats. It now assumes a malodorous presence in the midst of the living microcosmos which is the Opera Music Workshop, and comes to threaten its continued existence.
Despite the questions that the novel answers, motivations remain in large measure murky and uncertain, the villains impulsive, irrational and opportunistic, as they hurl themselves among the moving wheels of time, rather than await their turn according to a more linear and orderly progression of events.
One thing is clear: whatever process or dynamic prompts the protagonists to action, it does not stem from what Solan (2015) has described as healthy narcissism. There is no respect for the difference of otherness, and ‘I’ reigns supreme.
I had no idea so much time had elapsed since I wrote my last post, as I sometimes consider potential topics while away from the office, for example when taking a walk on the beach. I guess most never make it to cyberspace.
Finally, a pressing matter has presented itself–the publication of The Enigma of Childhood, Ronnie Solan’s much-awaited book. Although its Hebrew precursor was published in Israel in 2007, Karnac have just published it in London, and tomorrow, while still ‘hot off the press’, will be sending us our first copies– Ronnie and me, her scientific editor (and, I like to think, her staunch friend). We have known each other since the late eighties, when I took a memorable course with her, as part of the Psychotherapy program at TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine (Continuing Education), and later on translated an article of hers. For the past two or three years and until its publication, we worked together on Enigma.
Although you will find various reviews of Ronnie’s book on her personal website and author pages with Karnac, and others with online sellers such as Amazon, let me say, that, biased as I may be as scientific editor, it is definitely a worthwhile read. In my mind, Enigma is a groundbreaking book, one that demystifies theoretical contributions from major works and goes on to forge a common language for the various strains of psychoanalysis.
What I particularly like about the way in which Enigma is written, is that it is intended for both a lay audience and professional “shrinks.” The reader may either delve right into professional intricacies, such as the differences between adaptation and defense mechanisms (a topic that personally, I find fascinating) or skip right to what, for him or her, may be ‘dessert’, e.g., heart-warming accounts of encounters between parents/grandparents and their progeny, therapists (the author) and patients (anonymized, of course). Like any good book, it may be savored slowly, or read more quickly and then revisited–it is complex enough to be read at various levels of meaning. I have read the manuscript countless times, and yet, each time I reread a passage, I seem to learn something new, or digest it in a fresh way. I believe such a reading experience speaks for itself.
I am including links to Ronnie’s introduction to her book, my book review, and the wonderful trailer she composed, which conveys a whiff of her seminal book.
A link to my review of Enigma:
It’s been a while, as I have been busy editing someone else’s book – a fellow psychologist’s. Having edited my own drafts (e.g., novels, comment pieces and professional articles) and put in my two cents’ worth when invited re: the occasional professional article, book or master’s thesis, it has been a new and very rewarding experience. I LOVE editing, especially when the material is intellectually stimulating and fun to work with, leaving room for one’s own creative processes and critical mind to come into play. I am constantly amazed at how merely changing a word or perhaps a sequence in a paragraph immediately leads to other questions and/or associations. (The writers among you, try changing a noun to a verb and see what happens).
That said, I am now working on completing my next three novels (yes, you read that right!), each occupying a world of its own and being at a different stage of its evolution. It’s a bit like cooking a three-course meal. The young adult novel, which I have decided to rewrite rather than publish as initially slated, is by far the most challenging, and probably will take longest: My apologies to those of you who were waiting for it this past Christmas, although I hope it is for the better.
Meanwhile, holiday greetings, whether Passover or Easter.
I have just returned from the Shivah of one of my mother’s nicest friends, Miriam, a graceful lady in her eighties, who recently died after fighting to live and to continue breathing, a process lasting several weeks, the last three spent in hospital. The last two times I spoke with her on the phone and asked how she was, she laughingly said, “I’m younger and prettier,” her typical humor shining through. Having planned to visit her but procrastinating, not penciling it into my schedule, by now it is too late.
But I have discovered a multitude of people in her life, including her two sons and one lovely grand daughter, whose friendly smile reminds me of her grandmother and allows me to imagine what she might have looked like as a young girl.
While Miriam was very definitely missing from her living room, where we gathered this Saturday afternoon, there was a warmth and friendliness emanating from her family, which I can trace directly to her.
The Shivah is an important Jewish ritual, instrumental in allowing people to mourn their dead. Following the funeral, and till the end of the seventh day (interrupted only by the Sabbath or Jewish holidays in the case of traditional or observing families), neighbors and friends congregate in the deceased’s home to pay their respects to both the living and the dead, and to hear the accounts by surviving family members and close friends, of the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved one, and reminiscences about their shared life. Often photograph albums are leafed through, anecdotes remembered.
While exhausting for the family left behind, this coming together, a constant stream of people providing a kaleidoscopic picture of the life of the departed one, somehow eases the acute pain associated with the sudden rupture of death (sudden even when expected, as in the case of chronic illness). Of course the void remains, and throbs with each situation or context evoking the absence of the loved one, often taking one by surprise as years later, one sees one’s father or grandfather in people one chances by on the street, strangers who fleetingly remind us of them.
Regarding the unexpected “I” and “Thou” encounters that may emerge among relative strangers during the Shivah, I’m reminded of my days as a staff psychologist in Oncology, when the family members and often the patients themselves gave me the courage and the strength to continue my “work” amidst this never-ending train of arrival and departure.
People often die as they have lived. Let us live well and as fully as we can, while there is still time. Let us make the most of every moment we can savor. Let us be kind to ourselves and unto others.