Preventable Tragedies

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.

Synopsis:

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.

Helen’s music

Version 2

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 ChoirAlthough 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.

Hoopoe

The Psychological Thriller

A previous version of this article appeared in Pulse, July 1st, 2016

cheap thrillsI 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.[2] 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.)