My wife and I went to the States this past week to attend the funeral of a niece.  She was not someone with whom I have had much contact, but as the daughter of my brother-in-law, who was absolutely devastated, I felt we should go.  She was about the age of my children (40’s), and she died in a tragic skiing accident.  She was an avid and very good skier, skiing with the man she hoped to marry.  She had stopped on the slope to clean her goggles, and was struck from behind by an out-of-control skier.  She was wearing a helmet, but the impact was so great that it broke her neck and she died instantly.  The out-of-control skier was not injured.

Many of us have had our parents, friends and relatives die, but I feel that the death of one’s child, particularly so un-necessarily, is the ultimate tragedy.  Our children are the ones who are carrying into the future not only our genes, but our values, beliefs and aspirations.  The death of a child not only leaves us in deep mourning, it constricts us: heart, mind and soul.  And in this case, one cannot help but wonder what if.  What if her goggles didn’t get fogged?  What if she had been three feet to the right or the left?  What if the other skiier hadn’t been so stupidly careless?  What if her man had been standing directly behind her?  (He was standing beside her.)

Death features prominently in the writing of many novelists.  A death is often used to make a point, and often the point is that death is senseless, un-justifiable, un-reasonable.  Often, in real life, that is exactly the case.  And some writers go on to make the point that if death is senseless, there cannot be a loving God, because a loving God would never allow a senseless tragedy to happen to His people.  But, in my opinion, this argument overlooks an important point: it may look and feel senseless to us.  However, in an unknowable, cosmic context it may make sense.  Why is it unknowable?  Because if it were knowable, we would also know God, and if we really knew God we would not have free will.  Why no free will?  Can you imagine that anyone who really knew God, and therefore knew his plan for us, would actually do something that God didn’t like?  In other words, I believe that God’s gift of free will carries a price: we can’t know everything.

Looking back on my writing, death and its messages have been present in all my novels.  In Fishing in Foreign Seas, Jamie’s father develops incurable cancer.  He is terrified, but, gradually, he comes to terms with his life and the blessings of his sons and wife.  In Sin and Contrition, Gary, the ego-centric politician from a poor background, is approached by his long-absent father for money for a vital heart operation.  There is an argument, the two fail to agree, and the father dies.  Gary’s mother has dementia, but Gary leaves her care entirely to his sister.  Gary later regrets his behaviour.  Efraim’s Eye portrays the mind of a pathological terrorist: so committed to revenge that killing on the way to his grand attack is incidental.  In The Iranian Scorpion, the Iranian gallows casts its shadow over Robert and his father.  And in my fifth novel, Henry slides into deep depression after his exceptional son is killed in combat.  But in each case, there is some redemption, as, I think, there usually is in life.


Lost City Radio

My wife and I recently returned from a trip to Peru.  More on this later.

Knowing that we were going to Peru, one of my sons-in-law gave me a novel, Lost City Radio, to read.  It is the first novel by Daniel Alarcon, who was born in Peru and raised in Birmingham, Alabama.  The novel is set in a country which is not identified, but from some geographic and political clues is probably Peru.

It takes place during a time of violent political revolution that sounds like the Shining Path revolution which gripped Peru.  Many people are missing.  Its central character, Norma, hosts a talk show, ‘Lost City Radio’, which takes calls from listeners who describe their lost loved ones in hopes that another listener will provide information on the lost one’s whereabouts. Norma is married to Rey, who is a biologist with a keen interest in the medicinal properties of jungle plants.  He has been drawn into the revolutionary camp and is an enemy of the government.  For ten years, Rey disappears from Norma’s life, but she doesn’t dare to describe him on the air for fear that this will compromise him.  Instead, she continues a lonely life in the city and at the radio station, until an eleven-year-old boy and a strange man arrive at the radio station from the jungle.  Norma makes the connection between the boy and Rey, and this gives her the courage to talk about Rey on air.

Most of the reviews of this novel are very complementary.  They say that it depicts war and human reactions to it movingly and well.  War is senseless, yet people struggle to make sense of their lives in the wake of it.  This is all correct.  The novel has a mysterious vagueness about its setting, the passage of time, the characters, their relationships and motivations which tend to make the novel a universal rather than a specific statement.

On the one hand, I can appreciate the reason for this vagueness, but, for me, it had its drawbacks.  I found it difficult to connect with any of the shadowy characters at an emotional level – or even intellectually.  When I finished it, I thought: “Interesting book, but kind of frustrating.”

About Peru: it’s a beautiful, fascinating country.  We spent a week above 10,000 feet, which was difficult.  I wasn’t really sick, but I had very little energy or positive spirits.  Much of the landscape is beautiful: the Cola and Urubamba Valleys, Lake Titicaca.  Manchu Picchu is awesome in its beauty and its sense of mysterious community.  The Incas were incredible stone masons.  Working without iron tools, they cut huge blocks of granite with extraordinary precision.  One thing thing that was off-putting was the decorations in the (Catholic) churches.   Nearly every church had elaborately dressed figures of various saints.  I thought, “Is this a monotheistic religion?”  And in the cities, particularly Cuzco, the use of real gold (an 8 pound solid gold crown of thorns) and silver (life sized statue of the Virgin Mary made of silver) was obscene.  Wouldn’t it have been better to give that money to the poor, of which there are plenty?

But I recommend a trip to Peru, and a read of Lost City Radio.


My wife and I watched the film Doubt last night.  We wanted to watch it for several reasons: it stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, both of whom we think are excellent actors.  It also involves a dilemma in the Catholic church; we are Catholic.

The film was made in 2008 and is based on the Pulitzer prize-winning stage play, Doubt: a Parable.  In the film, Hoffman plays kindly a parish priest, and Streep plays the ultra strict and conservative principal of the school which is attached to the church.  Hoffman befriends the only black boy in the school, who is lonely, insecure and abused by his father.  Streep, a very un-trusting nun, suspects that Hoffman has formed an improper relationship with the boy, though she has no real evidence of this.  She confronts Hoffman, who denies any wrong doing; she tells Hoffman that she has spoken to a nun in his previous parish who told her that Hoffman had behaved improperly there.  Hoffman resigns from his current parish and he is immediately appointed by the Bishop to a larger, more important parish.  It turns out that Streep had not actually called his previous parish, and made up the story of improper behaviour.  She takes the position, however, that since he resigned, her allegation must be true.  At the end of the film, Streep confesses to a young nun that, “I have doubts . . . I have such doubts”.

The acting in the film by both Hoffman and Streep is excellent.  In fact, Streep is so cynical and so certain of her position that it is hard to believe that she has any of the doubts she finally expresses.  And Hoffman is so sincere in his denials that it is hard to understand his resignation except as a means to get away from Streep, but there is no hint of this.

Through much of the film, my wife and I were shaking our heads: we had doubts about the credibility of the story line.  We weren’t convinced that this could be a real situation: it seemed too forced.  I realise that it is difficult to create a situation where the audience (or the reader) has doubts about what actually happened, and what it might (or might not) mean.  But this is the essence of the film, and I think that rather than focus on the unique characters of the principal and the priest, it would have been more useful to present more ambiguous evidence of guilt or innocence that the characters can argue over.  As they argue over the evidence, their characters will be revealed, and the dilemma comes alive.  As it is, the only evidence we have is the priest’s friendliness to the boy, the fact that the boy was disciplined for drinking communion wine, and the fact that the priest placed a white shirt in his locker.

As a writer, I consider it absolutely necessary to pause and check the credibility of any twists in the plot, particularly twists which are essential to the central outcomes or messages.   For example, I am working on a novel which includes a sudden, catastrophic disaster which has terrible consequences for the main character.  To make that disaster more plausible and real, earlier in the book, I have the characters talk about minor versions of the disaster.  And, later, before the big disaster, I have the characters actually experience a real, but limited disaster.

One of my concerns in writing Efraim’s Eye was whether the reader would believe that the London Eye is actually vulnerable to attack.  Early in the novel, Efraim plans his attack in detail; there is no room for doubt.

Reviews: The Iranian Scorpion

On this page I’ll post all reviews of The Iranian Scorpion:

Anyone familiar with the novels of William Peace will not be surprised that “The Iranian Scorpion” involves international intrigue while exploring deep personal questions and beliefs. In this case, we are once again in what we Americans lump together as the Middle East. Our protagonist, Robert Dawson, is an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency who, having spent too much of his young life on the Texas/Mexico border, opts to use his expertise to explore and expose the trafficking of heroin from Afghanistan through Iran to the US.

Robert Dawson is a capable, likable, thoughtful person. He not only has the remarkable capacity to pick up languages and dialects easily (alas, for the rest of us who cannot even carry a tune), he seems to have an innate empathy for different cultures and creeds. There are of course the usual bad guys, those people in power who merely wish to exploit others and enrich themselves, and there is all the tension and terror of dealing with such people and their torturous methods. But Peace has never been one dimensional in his treatment of his characters, Western or Eastern. Robert’s true foil is a man named David Dawson, his father, as cold and closed a human being as Robert is warm and open. But here again, the author allows the man to develop on his own terms

Although an American living in England, Peace seems perfectly comfortable writing about both the land and the people of Afghanistan and Iran. He obviously likes these people and you will, too. And he is always interesting and often fascinating, whether he is blithely taking us through the steps in refining heroin from opium, following the trail of drug smugglers, or enriching U-235 on the way to a bomb.

Peace has “balanced” some rather perfunctory sex in the book with a few somewhat pedantic scenes revolving around discussions of faith and religion. These latter themes, however, blend so effortlessly with our hero’s thoughtful nature and the everyday life of this Muslim world that we see in practice what we might object to in preach. And there is an intriguing lack of resolution in “The Iranian Scorpion,” just as there is in life. It sets one to thinking. But you’ll have to buy and read the book first, and highly recommends that you do just that.

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I very much enjoyed reading “The Iranian Scorpion” by William Peace. The story line was suspenseful and fast moving, with seamless plot lines that kept me guessing. Robert, a US government DEA agent, was stationed in Afghanistan to get a handle on and find a way to stop poppy growth and thereby limit the production of opium and heroin, to the dismay of the Scorpion, a heroin kingpin. His father, David, is also a government official. Their relationship goes through a transformation in the story and you will be on the edge of your seat as both their lives are jeopardized. Will they make it out alive? Which love interest will win each of their attention? You’ll have to read it to find out and you’ll gain a new appreciation for illegal border crossings in the bargain.

Just a few shocking bits but I still loved reading this story, and it was educational as well. It provides more than a little violence, a little raciness, neither unnecessarily graphic, but mostly intrigue and heart pounding excitement. Historical, governmental, and cultural details are featured in “The Iranian Scorpion”, giving me a new understanding of the countries of Afghanistan and Iran. Characters are likeable, complex, and believable in relation to one another. The interplay of Islam and Christianity in this novel provides a colorful tapestry for a backdrop as several characters’ stories are woven together. To top it off, lamb kebabs and flatbread are on the menu. I look forward to reading other books by William Peace.

Reviewed by Mary DeKok Blowers for Readers’ Favorite