The Second Wiehl

By Cyberquill 04/14/201021 Comments

Had I known the manner in which talk radio loudmouth Jim Fate shrugged his mortal coil, I never would have opened the package which contained this intelligence …

Lis Wiehl: Hand of Fate

What a great read! Said I liked it but I lied—I LOVED IT! The perfect escape wrapped in mystery, adventure and danger! Lis is my new favorite author.
—Michael Bolton, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter

As a television crime writer and producer, I expect novels to deliver pulse-pounding tales with major twists. Hand of Fate delivers big time.
—Pam Veasey, writer and executive producer of CSI: NY

In the 1999 British Comedy Notting Hill, the Julia Roberts character browses a small book store and pulls a travel guide off the shelf. “Signed by the author, I see,” she remarks, pleasantly surprised at her unexpected discovery of an apparent rarity. Store owner William, played by Hugh Grant, quickly douses her flicker of serendipity by explaining that the author simply couldn’t be stopped and that if the browsing lady were able to “find an unsigned copy, it would be worth an absolute fortune.”

No doubt, signing books adds a nice personal touch. I once bought a paperback whose author happened to be a real-life acquaintance of mine. Upon informing him of my purchase, he offered to sign it for me. At our next encounter I handed him his masterpiece, he scrawled a few personalized lines on the title page, added his signature, and thus I became the proud owner of a published book signed by its author. Should he ever attain celebrity status—either by writing something that sells more than twelve copies, appearing on a reality show, or committing high profile homicide—I’ll flip my little treasure on eBay for a nifty profit.

Most of the time, though, an author will just sit there in some office and sign books conveyor-belt-style by the palletload until carpal tunnel develops, a rote procedure which yields a somewhat watered-down kind of personal touch.

Upon so incautiously tearing open the potentially lethal package my postman had delivered, I learned of an even more diluted variety: The author signs a bunch of sticky labels, sends them to the publisher, who then slaps them into the books before mailing these now “signed” copies to the readers.

Far be it from me to make a mountain out of a little sticky label in the front matter of a mystery novel, but more than by its presence I was intrigued by its placement—its bottom left and right corners exactly equidistant from the bottom of the page, and its left and right edges exactly equidistant from the left and right page border respectively, perfectly parallel and centered with a margin of inexactitude of one Planck length (1.6x10-35 meters) at the most. Could a human hand have affixed a label with such machine-like precision? Had the publisher used an atomic bookplate paster?

(Traditionally, a bookplate is a label pasted into a book for the purpose of denoting ownership, not authorship, but I suppose such label would be considered a bookplate even if it displayed the name of the editor’s daughter’s pet hamster. At the time of this writing, somewhat amusingly defines the term as a printed piece of paper pasted on one of the pages of a book, most often on the inside front cover showing ownership, and thus preventing theft, as if knowledge of the owner’s identity served as an effective deterrent against larceny. Next time, instead of locking your motor vehicle, try sticking a carplate on its hood.)

Aside from the bookplate precision conundrum, I was confused as to how many books signed by the author I now possessed all told, since this most recent addition to my personal library had never been in actual physical contact with its author nor her pen. The little sticky label inside had been signed, but not the book itself. This may be an important distinction, as I am about to file for Chapter Seven, for which purpose I must list the value of every item I own. Certainly, a book signed by its author is worth more than a book not signed by its author—under New York law, does this one count as signed or not signed?

Thus the mystery was in full swing, and I hadn’t begun reading yet.

Once upon a time, it would have been possible for a reasonably educated person to have read every book ever written. Nowadays, one can only conjecture how many hundreds of lifetimes it would take even for a speed-reading champ to plow through every book in stock at a modern multi-level bookstore, yet the average Barnes & Noble carries only a small percentage of all books ever published, and presumably most books ever written were never published.

The problem of selection arises: given the wealth of choices, why do we choose this book over that one? Why, for instance, given that I hadn’t even read Moby Dick yet, did I one day leave the Union Square Barnes & Noble with a copy of Halfway to the Grave (“A Night Huntress Novel”) by one Janiene Frost whom I had never heard of?

That day I had some time to kill, so I dropped into the nearest bookstore, headed straight for the shelf closest to the entrance, and found myself face-to-face with the latest chick-lit vampire releases. I could have sworn that the last time I had been to this particular store, this very shelf had held works of a genre closer to what I normally gravitate towards, or else I would have headed for a different shelf. (The staff there keep moving the merchandise around like in a supermarket.) 

Since I only had a few minutes and didn’t feel like going on an expedition to locate my druthers, I randomly grabbed one of these crown jewels of world literature, no doubt, flipped it open, and landed on the Acknowledgments page, where the author extended her “deepest appreciation” to her “amazing agent,” whose name I instantly recognized, as this agent happened to be a lovely young lady I had once—peradventure twice or thrice—met under, let’s say, literature-unrelated circumstances.

The nature of our association notwithstanding, she had shared with me a little about her work as a literary agent, the stacks of pitifully composed manuscripts piling up on her desk at all times, the tiresome slog of separating the wheat from the chaff, then trying to select the winners from the wheat, and finally laboring to lick the chosen ones into presentable shape prior to submitting them to a publisher. Ergo, what I was holding in my hand must have been a grain of refined prime wheat, so I turned to Chapter One, and … it was just a delight. Perhaps I should say a delight for what it was—i.e., a chick-lit vampire tale—but then again, a sequence of witty and well-crafted sentences is precisely that, no matter what the genre or whose imagination such sequence had issued from. (And make no mistake about it—sometimes you do have to fight the undead with the half-dead!)

As I exited the store with my brand-new acquisition in hand, methought I heard the plaintive cry of a big white whale fading behind me, “What about me???

At present, I own a few hundred books, the majority of which, quite frankly, I haven’t read yet. Most of them I purchased over the years because I thought they’d be interesting for various reasons (and many probably are), some of them were given to me, and a few the munchkins must have placed on my shelf at night, because my recollection of how I obtained them is a mite murky—a compilation of David Letterman Top Ten Lists published in 1990 (“Dan Qualye’s Top Ten Pickup Lines”) and the older of my two Scrabble dictionaries prime among those whose mode of procurement I could not explain even under the most stringent of CIA interrogations.

Expanding my book collection is not a top priority of mine at this juncture: (a) I have plenty of unread reading material gathering dust on my shelf, and (b) I have no money; but if I were to add yet another tome to my assortment, I’d probably get a Hemingway or Melville’s whale tale for a shoestring, as a little catching up on the classics surely couldn’t hurt my contemporary brain to which Captain Ahab sounds more like some Al-Qaeda big shot than a name in any way related to literature, and if you told me A Tale of Two Cities was about a water dispute between Knoxville and Memphis, I may not outright believe you, but I wouldn’t be in a position to present an educated rebuttal, either.

So in light of all that unread reading material I already own and my resolution to stop splurging on books until further notice—with the possible exception of firesale classics—why did I splurge on a brand-new hardcover?

Actually, I aced a little quiz that had popped up in my Facebook News Feed, and in consequence a free quasi-autographed advance copy of a whodunit with half a heavily lipsticked female puss on its glossy front cover wound up in my mailbox. After my Green Card in the Diversity Visa Lottery, this is only the second item I have ever won, so it warrants special attention.

Lis Wiehl

Now, behold this toothsome specimen of femininity in the red top very carefully. If you think she might be some porn star, centerfold, or a cast member of Cougar Town (playing the little sister of one of the cougars, of course), you’re off the hook.

If, however, you’ve ID’d her correctly, you’re busted. Congratulations. You are a member of the most wretched segment of modern human society.

Are you a crack pusher? A wife beater? A rapist? A serial child molester? A Nazi? A terrorist? A Khmer Rouge sympathizer?

Worse. Much worse. You are a Fox News watcher. In exchange for a reasonably large sum, my silence is yours. (Yes, PayPal will be fine.)

In addition to her regular appearances as a legal analyst on the fair and balanced channel, Lis Wiehl, J.D., Harvard Law School graduate, and former federal prosecutor, co-hosted the Radio Factor with Bill O’Reilly for seven years. Since to be scolded and lampooned for her “dopey” interjections and mocked for her unfamiliarity with some of Mr. O’Reilly’s favorite Motown artists—each instance of such grievous ignorance promptly accompanied by a derisive “Lis Wiehl, Harvard graduate, ladies and gentlemen!”—appeared to be Ms. Wiehl’s primary function on this program, those unconcerned with the ratings business and the attendant need to manipulate audience demographics may wonder why the motor-mandibled Irish man employed the services of a co-host at all. (Among many other things, Ms. Wiehl touches on the who and why of co-hosting in the book we are about to discuss.)

In one particularly memorable Radio Factor episode three years ago, an irate Bill O’Reilly ordered Lis Wiehl’s microphone cut and thundered that she was “not allowed to speak for three minutes” because she had allegedly “misled” his audience. In reality, Ms. Wiehl hadn’t misled anyone, but Mr. O’Reilly had misheard a word. Had she really said open instead of oath in the context at hand, the mike-cutting would have been justified. (Although he was dead wrong, Mr. O’Reilly was being exceptionally kind—for “open,” I would have sent her home for the day.)

During the commercial break following this incident, the wrongfully silenced Ms. Wiehl noticed a large padded envelope with a red string tab among the stack of her aggressor’s unopened snailmail on the U-shaped studio table, and she began to what-if-isize: what if there were a bomb in that package? … no, not a bomb … death would follow much too quickly … how about a little smoke-grenade that would spray a cloud of sarin gas into his face the moment he pulled the tab?

Lis Wiehl felt an eerie sense of contentment, indeed elation, at the thought of the loutish Talkmaster gasping and coughing awhile before crumpling the floor, his lifeless eyeballs staring up at the soft, fuzzy blue ceiling … what say you now, Bill O’Reilly? where be your gibes? your rants? your diatribes? your flashes of mockery that were wont to set the table on a roar? Quite chapfallen? (Ms. Wiehl, being of Danish extraction, shares a certain kinship with Prince Hamlet.)

My account of Ms. Wiehl’s train of thought in the immediate wake of the injustice she had suffered at the jaws of a tyrant is pure speculation, but may I present as circumstantial evidence her second thriller, Hand of Fate, which coincidentally kicks off with an attractive female co-host who, during a commercial break, hands her domineering boss a “padded envelope from a publisher” that “was in my box this morning, but it’s really yours” and quickly exits the studio to “get some tea.”

You guessed it—this would be the last piece of mail that talk radio firebrand Jim Fate would ever open.

In the novel, the murder victim is described by various characters—among other glowing encomia—as a “blowhard” and a “loudmouthed jerk” who

  • always had an opinion
  • liked to rile everybody up
  • [was] all about getting in someone’s face
  • just lapped up attention and did anything he could to get it
  • wasn’t above shading the truth and even ignoring facts that didn’t fit his theories
  • probably every day […] made somebody mad enough to at least think about killing him

In the back of the book are printed endorsement letters from three different “key radio personalities,” each of whom deems himself the inspiration for Jim Fate. Although the character could conceivably be a composite of several individuals with a few imaginary attributes thrown into the mix—Jim Fate is portrayed as a 41-year-old bachelor who works for KNWS radio in Portland, OR, and doesn’t have a cable show—, given the longstanding Wiehl-O’Reilly connection in conjunction with the aforementioned 2007 mike-cutting incident being referenced in the narrative as one of the potential nails in the victim’s casket, his real-life identity is fairly open-and-shut, as the man himself duly acknowledges:

So there you go. Bill O’Reilly says it’s absolutely him, and anything Bill O’Reilly says is good enough for me. (I don’t use emoticons in my articles, but if I were to make an exception, I might add a winking smiley face right here.)

On page 2, Jim Fate addresses his co-host by her last name (“With all due respect, Hanawa, …”), a classic O’Reilly habit, just in case there ever was any doubt as to Jim O’Fate’s real-life identity.

Shortly thereafter, on the bottom of page 4, the doomed bloviator pulls the red string tab on the fatal package, and for the next five pages he slowly asphyxiates—a process the author chronicles with manifest relish in gruesome detail—until he finally flatlines on page 9.

The remaining 280-plus pages are devoted to the “Triple Threat Club”—an estrogen troika composed of Federal prosecutor Allison Pierce, FBI special agent Nicole Hedges, and TV crime reporter Cassidy Shaw—pounding the Portland pavement and beavering away, pardon the pun, at narrowing the sizeable pool of suspects while dealing with plot-unrelated personal issues.

Although at long last in a dramatic denouement the perpetrator blows his or her (or their?) cover, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter who shot J.R.—or who gassed Jim Fate—because for every person who loved him, there were probably ten others who loathed him, so almost everyone had a motive, plus the story lacks a hidden-in-plain-view trail of clues which, in hindsight, compels the outcome.

Compared to other contemporary novels I’ve read of late, this one has a bit of a made-for-Network quality to it in that it contains (a) no sex beyond a few G-rated references to it (“He had already offered her a job and a place back in his bed”) and one account of a past rape where the victim had been conveniently drugged and hence couldn’t provide graphic details even if she wanted to; and (b) no profanity whatsoever save one mention of the word pee in the context of taking a pregnancy test, and two or three instances of whore—statistically speaking, one three-letter word plus one five-letter word makes two four-letter words on 293 pages, assuming we stretch the definition of profanity to include these terms. (Incidentally, Bill O’Reilly once or twice referred to Ms. Wiehl as Little Bo Peep on the air.)

So we’ve got blood and hair on the wall (“Half his head is gone”), but no venturing beyond first base and no bad language in a story set in the rough-and-tumble world of high-octane media, crime, and law enforcement, and which stars a Carrie-&-Co-style coterie of youngish professional females—albeit a trio and not a quartet—frequently engaged in girlie talk amongst themselves, always topped off with the “most decadent desert on the menu.” Not that these missing elements are essential for the composition of gripping fiction, nor would I necessarily notice their absence, but something here smacks of omission aforethought.

In scanning Amazon reviews for Ms. Wiehl’s previous novel, Face of Betrayal, the first in her Triple Threat series featuring the same three female protagonists, I came across statements like this one from Lisa R.:

Some Christian readers may find some of the scenes to be a bit edgier than they’re used to. There is no graphic detail, but there is an ‘after the fact’ bedroom scene between an unmarried couple and also some scenes with one or more of the protagonists drinking.

Edgier than they’re used to? What do Christian readers usually read? Toaster manuals? I happen to be a Christian and a reader, but “Christian reader” sounds like a separate species, i.e., the total being something other than the sum of its parts.

So after apparently having taken a hiatus from her Little Bo persona and transformed into the Marquis de Sade for her a-bit-too-edgy-for-comfort fiction debut, Christian readers will be quite relieved to learn that Ms. Wiehl washed out her licentious mind with Ivory for the sequel—no more after-the-fact anything, neither unmarried nor otherwise, although, alas, some protagonistic wine-sipping is still going on.

(Should the de-edging trend continue, the third Wiehl, Heart of Ice, due in spring 2011, may well be about three pretty angels drinking tea while drifting on a floe—no snuggling up to each other to stay warm, of course; better to let the poor girls freeze to death than to risk edgy lesbian overtones.)

From humble beginnings in a village in Scotland 200 years ago to our modern-day publishing enterprise employing over 600 people, Thomas Nelson’s goal has been to Honor God and Serve People. At Thomas Nelson, we believe that we exist to inspire the world. We believe that the world desperately needs inspiration—the right kind of inspiration—and that we are a conduit for change […] We want our products to be a means by which God breathes new life into His world.

These statements on the publisher’s website—Thomas Nelson Inc., the largest Christian publishing company in the world—hint at the solution to the mystery (other than the mystery of who offed Jim Fate). Nothing wrong, of course, with God breathing life into His world and Ours. Inspiration is good, and Hand of Fate certainly inspired me to peruse its publisher’s mission statement a bit more closely:

  • First, we want our products—books, videos, and conferences—to affect people. We are not in the business of merely entertaining our audiences or “tickling their ears.” Instead, we want our products to have a positive impact on consumers. In addition, we live in a day when people are desperate for direction and advice. As a result, we want our products to provide practical guidance.
  • Second, we want our products to have a positive emotional impact. Emotions are not something to disparage or disregard. They can be the very thing that provide the impetus for action. Inspired emotions can lead to noble actions. We want to intentionally stimulate (though not manipulate) those kinds of emotions through the products we produce.
  • Third, we want our products to be a source of real change, both in individuals and in our larger culture. Looking back over our lives, most of us recognize that real change frequently came about as a result of the books we read, the conferences we attended, or both. These types of products provide an opportunity to affect deep and lasting change.

Aside from its rather thinly veiled objective—emphasis on thinly veiled, not the commendable objective itself—to rise above mere ear-tickling and to have a positive emotional impact upon its readership in accordance with Thomas Nelson Inc.’s specifications, Hand of Fate delivers a good deal of inside baseball to make it an entertainingly instructive read that never gets boring. As a legal expert and media insider, Lis Wiehl knows her streets, and it shows. The reader learns the meaning of expressions like womb to tomb and postmortem lividity and receives little crash courses in talk radio production, grand jury trials, and forensics.

And are you aware that most color laser printers do more than just print party invites and color-coded bar charts, but that they also secretly encode the printer’s serial number and manufacturing code on every document they produce? Something about tiny yellow dots that appear about every inch on the page, nestled within the printed words. I had no idea. Now I know, and should I ever commit a felony which necessitates the production of color prints, I’ll make sure to take extra precautions lest the evidence be traced to a Kinko’s two blocks from my house—although this may not be exactly the kind of practical guidance the publisher had envisioned.

While I would stop short of characterizing Hand of Fate as preachy, here and there it inclines in that direction—in my humble opinion, to filch a stock locution from someone we know. Speaking of whom, Ms. Wiehl’s long-term “sidekick” also wrote a novel in which an aggrieved party settles the score using unlawful methods, i.e., embarks on a veritable whacking spree. Although clearly the more conservative (“traditional”) of the two thrillerwrights, Bill O’Reilly’s 1998 revengefest Those Who Trespass—a fast-paced behind-the-scenes primer on the inner workings of the American news media laden with juicy details about the business in which the author cast himself as the killer and the cop—incorporates not only a more unbleeped kind of dialogue, but also passages like this infamous one, which I’m sure Mr. O’Reilly regrets having included, for it keeps getting quoted ad nauseam at the expense of everything else in the book:

He gently teased her by licking the areas around her most sensitive erogenous zone. Then he slipped her panties down her legs and, within seconds, his tongue was inside her, moving rapidly […] Shannon lifted Ashley off of him and quickly knelt behind her […] His hands firmly gripped her buttocks. Ashley could feel his rhythm. First quick, then slow, then quick again. He brought her right up to orgasm, then pulled back.

Strictly speaking, there’s no ‘after the fact’ bedroom scene between an unmarried couple in Those Who Trespass, either, as the frolic ends when after more than an hour of lovemaking the couple fell asleep. Hence no edgy after-the-fact stuff to upset the Christian readers. (The same goes for the living room scene and the shower sequence.)

Mr. O’Reilly’s current publisher, Broadway Books, part of Random House’s Crown Publishing Group, keeps its mission statement free of spiritual impact requirements:

Broadway Books publishes a variety of nonfiction books across several categories including memoir, health & fitness, inspiration & spirituality, history, current affairs & politics, marriage & relationships, animals, travel & adventure narrative, pop culture, humor, and personal finance.

That’s all—pithy enough to make it into the O’Reilly Factor e-mail segment. (Somehow its webmaster forgot to mention that Broadway Books publishes fiction books as well.)

The company who originally published Those Who Trespass, Bancroft Press, does include an enlightenment clause in their mission statement, but without specifying the nature of the enlightenment:

Bancroft Press operates under the slogan books that enlighten [sic]. It has published nearly two dozen books, from a TV thriller, a Hollywood novel, young adult fiction, and adult mysteries to non-fiction books ranging from humor, health, and cultural criticism, to history, business, art, and personal investment.

Bancroft Press apparently operates under the slogan books that enlighten and we use neither italics nor quotation marks. And on its Bill O’Reilly bio page, the company currently announces the following:

In May 2002, he is to begin hosting a nationally syndicated radio program …

O’Really? Can’t wait. Something tells me he will cut his pretty co-host’s mike and inspire her to kill him in a thriller.

In the back of Lis Wiehl’s Hand of Fate there is a “Reading Group Guide,” a list of thought-provoking questions on a variety of subjects broached in the book, such as whether our society has become too reliant on drugs to combat common problems like insomnia and anxiety, whether the country has become too politically polarized, and whether words can sound harsher when delivered electronically.

I would add this set of questions to the Guide:

How visible is the Hand of Nelson in Hand of Fate? Why did the author choose a publisher who insists on the inclusion of inspirational elements—and likely on the omission of others—in the final product, thus inevitably imposing constraints upon its writers? Had Ms. Wiehl published her novel with Bancroft Press or Broadway Books instead of Thomas Nelson, would it have a less Lifetime-TV feel to it and perhaps feature a dash of salacity in place of a Reading Group Guide?

Not that is should. Just curious if it would.

Prior to turning novelist, Lis Wiehl keyboarded two non-fiction works:

Winning Every Time: How to Use the Skills of a Lawyer in the Trials of Your Life—a title which raises the paradox of who would win if both parties to a dispute have read the book—, and The 51% Minority: How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (I don’t know…buy more shoes perhaps?)

Both were published by Ballantine Books—like Broadway Books an imprint of Random House:

Today, Ballantine is one of America’s largest publishers of hardcover, trade paperback and mass market paperback books — spanning a remarkably wide variety of subjects. Publishing talented writers from every category and genre, its hardcover program is particularly strong in commercial fiction…

No mention of its products aspiring to be a means by which God breathes new life into this world. And given that its hardcover program is particularly strong in commercial fiction and it had already published two of her books, what made Lis Wiehl switch to an overtly Christian publishing concern for her fiction series?

And why do these inspirational aspects “bother” me so much that I’ve launched into a whole Talking Points memo on them? Am I so flaming a liberal that any reference to the Deity spooks me as much as poor little Damien panics at the sound of church bells? Or am I just intimidated by strong female characters and debates on women’s issues like some men who wax hysterical at the sight of a bloody Tampax?

Well, my shrink will have to figure it out. On a conscious level, I simply wonder if the life lessons presented in Hand of Fate could have been presented in less conspicuous a fashion such that I, your humble reader, wouldn’t have become curious enough to actually research the publisher to figure out what’s going on here. Because somehow these lessons, valid as they doubtless are, don’t flow organically from the narrative but rather seem added to it like sails on a sauceboat—what would Chekov say?

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. (Anton Chekov)

The First Law of Narrative (“Chekov’s gun”) states that if there’s a gun on the mantelpiece in the first act, it must have gone off by the third. In other words, ideally, every element introduced into a story should either (a) bear on the course of events directly or (b) reveal something about a person’s character which shapes his or her behavior which, in turn, shapes the story line. Elements which do neither just sort of “hang there,” all dressed up with nowhere to go, as it were.

For instance, one of the protagonists, Cassidy, is hooked on sleeping pills. You could argue that this goes to her character, for certain personality types more than others are liable to substance abuse. Fair enough, but then again, as far as the story line is concerned, instead of as a Somulex® addict, Cassidy might as well be portrayed as a contortionist, a cat lover, or a bookplate collector, for her addiction neither helps nor hinders nor in any way bears on the search for Jim Fate’s killer. Sure, she falls asleep in her bathtub one night and almost drowns, upon awakening vows never again to do anything so stupid, then drives to work. It’s not like she suddenly conks out during a stakeout and as a result a suspect slips through the cracks, thus adding a new twist to the story. That Somulex® bottle is like a gun she keeps carrying in her purse but which never goes off. Sure, the murder victim had introduced her to the pills, so there’s a connection, but a connection that doesn’t impact on the story is like a cog that doesn’t turn anything.

Her addiction, it would appear, serves as a rather flimsily disguised justification to plug Narcotics Anonymous—certainly a worthy enterprise—which, as per its literature, urges its members to make a decision to turn their will and their lives over to the care of God and humbly ask Him to remove their shortcomings. Therefore, the addiction motif and its resolution align splendidly with the publisher’s mission statement while having nothing to do with the story itself.

The other two ladies also struggle with personal issues that do not turn anything in the novel’s center of gravity, namely the murder of Jim Fate. Thus Allison, the Federal prosecutor, is pregnant. While nothing speaks against being with child while hunting down a murderer, the former does not bear on the latter unless the pregnancy were somehow related to the motive for the crime, or perhaps during an ultrasound exam the rapid lub-dub of the fetus’s heartbeat reminded Allison of a galloping horse, a sound she had faintly perceived in the background on, say, a recording of one of the killer’s phone messages without having been able to place it at the time, but now this newly discovered equine connection leads to the perpetrator who owns a horse-racing track.

Since nothing like that happens in the book, Allison seems pregnant for no reason other than to showcase the vicissitudes of the condition, such as craving red meat one day and being repulsed by it the next, and to have life deal her a rough hand in the course of her gestation which provides an opportunity for personal growth and hence to serve as an inspiration for the reader in accordance with the publisher’s objective. As far as the story goes, however, in lieu of being pregnant, she might as well be playing the trumpet.

So Cassidy is addicted to pills, Allison is happily hitched and expecting, and Nicole is a single mom who has lost her faith in God. In a parallel universe, our three heroines collaborate on solving a murder. Does Moses ever show up to part the waters and forge a passage between the two? At one point, a character from the past suddenly stops by for a very dramatic sequence in the course of which bullets are fired and in whose wake Nicole begins to warm up to the Lord again—any relation to the murder of Jim Fate? A pinch of illegal immigration gets also tossed into the stew, with both sides of the issue being presented, fair and balanced, and Jesus having the final word on the subject—is there an undocumented alien component to the murder?

In the end, Hand of Fate reads like two separate books under a single cover, one being a murder mystery, the other a tract on Faith and muliebrity, all somewhat incompletely amalgamated like chocolate cake served with a side of broccoli.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, chocolate and broccoli are perfectly compatible: Gary Null’s Nutritious Chocolate, for instance, contains Green Algae Powder, Wheat Grass Powder, Green Barley Powder, Alfalfa Leaf, Oat Grass, Broccoli, Parsley, Kale, Aloe Vera, Watermelons, Pink Grapefruits, and a slew of other ingredients not commonly found in dark chocolate, yet it tastes delicious and thoroughly amalgamated—so it can be done.

To be or not to be fair, Shakespeare sometimes paid no heed to Chekov’s gun either—perchance he knew not of’t—, and like Hand of Fate, the aforequoted-from Hamlet, too, has a bit of a ragbag quality to it. The play includes numerous elements and speeches which are only loosely, if at all, related to the fratricide at its core. For example, Polonius heaps a mountain of sage advice upon his son Laertes prior to the latter’s departure to France:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

And on and on. Yet it is unclear what, if anything, Polonius’s display of wisdom reveals about his character—other than standard issue complexity—such that it renders the old man particularly susceptible to eavesdropping behind a curtain and getting impaled in the process.

Creative literary analysts, of course, will always come up with a cogent-sounding interpretation for anything. If a water-skiing squirrel—a mythical creature briefly mentioned in Hand of Fate—suddenly appeared during Hamlet‘s gravediggers scene and for no discernible reason launched into a protracted soliloquy on where to find the best filberts in Copenhagen, scholars would be falling over each other in extolling the allegorical importance of its speech with respect to Hamlet’s insanity, and Shakespeare would now be credited, rightly or wrongly, with the semantic broadening of the word nuts to include the meaning of crazy.

Besides, the Stratford-upon-Avoner had a certain way with words, and the squirrel’s verses would be suffused with such riveting imagery that their ultimate purpose in the context of the story were of lesser significance.

Motivational psychology teaches that a strong enough why can take care of almost any how. Mark Twain once declared that the difference between the right word and the almost right word was akin to the difference between a lightning bolt and a lightening bug. (In the spirit of its substance, I slightly reworded Mr. Twain’s quote.) Thus in writing—as in music and chocolate-making—a strong enough how can take care of almost any what.

If all the elements in a story hang together like beads on a string and each one of Chekov’s guns dutifully goes off before curtain time, plain who-what-when-where language, interspersed with a few zingy one-liners here and there, works swimmingly. If, on the other hand, several stories that don’t quite gel on their own are to be bundled under one heading, stylish use of language goes a long way towards forging into a homogenous whole what may otherwise seem like a chimera of disparate elements. In one scene, Hamlet’s mother, the queen, asks for more matter with less art, but were she given a just-the-facts-Jack prose version of Hamlet, Her Highness may quickly change her royal tune and demand the art be restored as a crucial catalyst for the matter.

Hand of Fate, while certainly eloquent, focuses on content, not language, i.e., on the what more than the how; and regarding the how, it opts for clarity over style. Presumably, neither Ms. Wiehl nor her co-author/ghostwriter/distiller-in-chief (“She’ll say, ‘What’s a trap and trace in a legal context?’ and she’ll distill it down”), mystery writer April Henry spent hours poring over each paragraph recasting it over and over until it scanned like a symphony before tackling the next. As a result, rather than being enthralled by the flow and the rhythm of the language, the reader cannot but focus on what happens next and wonder why it happens. Without unique and catchy phraseology as a common denominator to glue it all together, the inspirational aspects of the three protagonists’ personal journeys remain sorely untethered from the hunt for the killer, and never the twain shall meet.

In a previous post, I commented upon the inadvertent serpent motif in The Da Vinci Code. Every few dozen pages, someone or something advances by snaking. In addition, characters seem inordinately prone to wheeling around (wheel with a hee, not Wiehl).

Several instances of an uncommon word or expression—or a common term used in an uncommon way, such as snake as a verb—despite a plethora of alternate choices readily listed in the Thesaurus suggest an author’s relative unconcern with language beyond its primary function, which is to convey meaning with clarity.

Say what you will about The Da Vinci Code‘s literary merits or the soundness of its historical infrastructure, every single element injected into the story pertains to the search for the Holy Grail and, by extension, to the murder of the curator in the Louvre. Teabing’s butler isn’t allergic to peanuts merely because food allergies are a problem in society and the afflicted individual ultimately improves his life by joining Allergics Anonymous, thus serving as an inspiration to similarly situated readers, while the search for the Grail merrily proceeds on a different channel. Butler Rémy gets killed in the context of the very quest which forms the meat of the novel by being given cognac laced with peanut powder. Chekov’s gun—the peanut allergy—doesn’t just hang there all dressed up with nowhere to go like the pill addiction in Hand of Fate. It actually goes off in the form of anaphylactic shock which bears on the story line by eliminating an accessory. If it didn’t go off, the laws of literary compensation require it be handled with such spellbinding verbal panache that its discharge—while still desirable—would become secondary.

Incidentally, Hand of Fate, too, features a goober component, and happily—unlike the Somulex® sideshow—it does bear on the murder of Jim Fate. The author(s) didn’t throw in a few peanut crackers just because Thomas Nelson finds them inspirational. They’re actually a crucial part of the story.

History will tell how many timeless quotations Hand of Fate holds:

I’m going to get some tea. (Hand of Fate)

sounds just as memorable as

Tomorrow is another day. (Gone With the Wind)

The observation that

It is usually more important how a man meets his fate than what it is. (Hand of Fate)

seems no less astute albeit no more universally acknowledged than

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice)

Yet despite containing a number of potentially classic lines like these, style and language were given short shrift overall. Of course, Papa Bear (Papa Mouse?) O’Reilly always says that if you make a claim, you must give examples to back it up.

No problem.

So here’s an example:

Allison straightened up and bit the edge of her thumbnail. “I’ve been thinking about it too, Cassidy. All the evidence we have is circumstantial. […] hated Jim Fate, and he had access to […]. But if hating Jim Fate was a crime…”
     Cassidy finished the thought: “… then there are a lot of people out there who are guilty.”

This exchange between Allison and Cassidy occurs on page 268. By now, we’ve been informed about a batrillion times that Jim Fate is one of the most despised individuals that ever walked the solar system. Everybody knows. Even the water-skiing squirrel knows. Therefore, as soon as Allison says, “But if hating Jim Fate was a crime…,” the alert reader automatically finishes the thought, just to find it finished once again by Cassidy in the following line. So not only does Cassidy’s line completion (a) provide no new information and (b) mildly insult the reader’s intelligence by completing a thought as if he or she would have been unable to do so, worst of all it also (c) is phrased as blandly as an unsalted rice cake tastes. A triple threat indeed.

In my humble estimation, Allison’s thought should have been (a) left uncompleted and not responded to, (b) left uncompleted and concluded by Cassidy with a simple “I know”, or (c) completed in a snazzier manner, such as “… then half the country would be locked up.”

But “… then there are a lot of people out there who are guilty” almost looks like a screw-up at the printing plant where the original half-sentence was accidentally erased, and some lithography apprentice quickly whipped something up as the presses were already rolling.

Anytime an element is inserted into a narrative—be that element a whole theme, such as pregnancy or addiction, or just one line—which brings no news to the party or brings news but doesn’t bear on the main story line, what else but pure style could justify its inclusion? For if it also ain’t snazzy, witty, or poetic and euphonious by way of rhythm, sound, and flow—i.e., fun to read—it’ll just sit there on the page like a monkey on a rock (yes, the selfsame monkey David Letterman wouldn’t give your troubles to).

On the positive side of the language ledger, Hand of Fate is far less snake infested than The Da Vinci Code. A forensic pathologist and his assistant have air supply hoses snaking up their backs, but that’s it as far as ophiology. This makes perfect sense, as too much phallic symbolism would likely discomfit the Christian readership. If Ms. Wiehl and Ms. Henry (the distiller) had included additional snakes or snaking, Thomas Nelson Inc. surely would have removed them lest a few poison gas grenades from disgruntled worshippers might arrive in their mail (just as in response to this statement, I might receive a live diamondback in a padded package from Thomas Nelson in hopes that getting bitten may affect deep and lasting change in me).

While snaking does not loom large in Hand of Fate, a few uncommon-word repetitions caught my eye, although all of these are mere duplications rather than multiple instances of the same expression. Granted, I seem to be the only person on the planet sensitive to such repetitions, for even though The Da Vinci Code sold over 80 million copies and has been panned and trashed on virtually every account under the sun, a cursory Google search of snaking and wheeling as relates to the unusual frequency of these verbs in the book yields no results, save for my own brief lamentation on the subject.

Whatever word neurosis I may be afflicted with, these word duplications jumped out at me from the pages like jacks-in-the-book, and, I maintain, their presence bespeaks a touch of sloppiness in the language department which ultimately may be responsible for why the various ingredients in Hand of Fate fail to coalesce as well as they should.

Of course, repetition as a stylistic device or to avoid confusion must be distinguished from repetition as a result of having misplaced one’s Thesaurus. The following examples strike me as the latter. We’ll let the audience decide:

Reality was slogging forward with a child like a deadweight on her hip.

Reality slogs on for another seven pages and then…

She was plodding along with her head down, her mind someplace else, the sleeping [child] a deadweight on her hip, when she heard a shout.

The second time around, I would have made the kid a millstone around her waist.

They were in a typical office space, fuzzy, blue, head-high walls making a warren of cubes.

Later in a different building:

Most of the floor was a rabbit warren of cubicles separated from each other by shoulder-high partitions.

Perfect. Now we can take the rabbits from all the warrens in Hand of Fate and feed them to the snakes in The Da Vinci Code. (“Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The warrens’ tasty bunnies shall amply furnish forth the Vinci serpents.”) At least the cubes have turned into cubicles, and the walls have become partitions and shrunk to shoulder-height, but shouldn’t the second office be a maze instead of yet another warren?

She felt herself calm a fraction.

I had never heard or read the term a fraction used in the sense of a bit. Now I encountered it twice in one book.

Makayla lifted her head a fraction.

There are myriad ways to slightly lift one’s head. A tad. A trifle. An iota. A mite. A whit. A hair. Too many fractions, and I feel I’m in math class.

The observation suite was crowded with representatives from an alphabet soup of local, state, and national law enforcement as well as public health agencies.

Soup lovers will be delighted.

Personally and professionally, they wanted themselves and their particular branch of the alphabet soup associated with the winning outcome.

Frankly, I’m of two minds on the alphabet soup. The second serving may actually be a legitimate reiteration of the first, and switching expressions could lead to disorientation. On the other hand, besides remembering the term itself, the reader will likely have forgotten exactly who or what twenty pages earlier was thus referred to, get the impression the author had yet again mislaid her Book of Synonyms.

Still, alphabet soup may be such a common law enforcement term of art to summarize all the various acronymed agencies and departments that its repeated use is justified.

Once again, we’ll let the audience decide.

Yes, I am aware that I used the word thus nine times in this post.

I am also aware that 250 Words is the Soul of Wit.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief.

Following the Danish nobleman’s lead, I shall be brief in my conclusion:

Lis Wiehl. Hand of Fate. In stores now.

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  • Andreas

    So, you’re saying that … signing my books, once they’re out, will raise (or lower?) their sales?

    How you picked that one book when you were killing time: You do know that there is nothing meritocratic about the placement of books within a store. Money talks. Everything — the end of a shelf, the display, which books are turned up — is paid for.

    • Cyberquill

      Not money but the hand of fate determines the placement of books within a store. Everybody knows that except you. I hate to break this to you, but working for The Economist has turned you into a materialistic cynic.

      No idea if signing your books will affect their sales. Let’s face it—you’re no Paris Hilton. If you got your mug on TV more often, it would be a different story.

      Personally, more than whether a book was signed by the author, I’m concerned with whether and to what extent it was written by the author, especially when it says With So-and-so on the cover.

      Do you have a ghost?

      • Andreas

        I feel very ghosty, although I don’t have a contractual one.

  • cheri

    Hi Peter,
    I arrived home from school tonight, after listening to a rousing discussion of Sense and Sensibility. It’s late here and I have to be at work at 1:oo pm tomorrow. I hit my iGoogle button and lo and behold, a post by the hysterical Peter G.

    I started reading. And reading. And reading. This post is by far, your best. I laughed out loud in several places.

    But then, it went on and on. I have printed it out, so that with my coffee tomorrow a.m. I might savor the wit and specificity in this post.

    You know you have talent, right?

    Funny, witty, zany, a bit manic in places, but really brilliant.

    After reading this, I am humbled and will put my book aspirations aside.

    By the way, I taught Moby Dick for a number of years. It’s worth the read.

    Of course (there I go again with that annoying phrase), I recommended Dante to Andreas; he didn’t like it.

    • Cyberquill

      You taught Moby Dick for years? Must be a loooong book. Longer than my post?

      Yes, I have talent. I keep telling that to Chase, Amex, and Bank of America every time they call. Somehow I’m not getting through to these people.

      So I’m also “manic”,”hysterical,” and “brilliant”? I hope all these conditions are covered under Obamacare. Electroshocks are expensive.

      Of course is a bit of an annoying expression, I agree, as are obviously and certainly. From a logical perspective, if something is so clear, why bother to mention it?

      But sometimes these terms just flow nicely in connecting two thoughts, like little drum fills in a song. I don’t know. My favorite is needless to say.

      Dante—that’s the Inferno guy, right? Some like it hot. Some don’t. Perhaps Andreas prefers stories about refrigeration equipment and cryogenics. Lis Wiehl’s next novel will be called Heart of Ice. We’ll recommend that one to him. I’m sure he’ll like it better.

      • cheri

        The only way I can read your posts is to have a day off.

        • Cyberquill

          The only way I can write my posts is to be unemployed.

  • Richard

    7,798 words of perfect consistency. I know because as I read I finger every word and count.

    Amazing stuff.

    So you liked the book.

    • Cyberquill

      Yes, I liked it. That’s what I was trying to say. Thanks for distilling it down. And please don’t point your finger at words. How rude. This is a No-Point Zone.

  • Thomas Stazyk

    Once again you have managed to parlay a rant into a lucid, entertaining and incisive series of insights into humanity!

    • Cyberquill

      Yes, sometimes I work in reverse.

  • cheri

    I have unsubscribed and resubscribed to your blog in an effort to follow the webmaster’s suggestion (that came into my junk box). I’m glad I checked my junk.

    After reading the last half of this book review, I am floored by your attention to detail and word choice.

    By the way, I like her lipstick color.

    • Cyberquill

      Given that only half her mouth is in the picture, I wonder if the other half is lipsticked, too. Why waste makeup where no one can see it?

      Glad you’re floored. Enjoy it while it lasts, for it is precisely my attention to detail and word choice which eventually causes most folks to dislike and despise me.

      Sorry about the group message in your junk. I mainly sent it so I can prove I made a notification attempt in case someone files a complaint for not having been notified, although now I’ll probably receive more complaints for spamming. Classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

  • Phil

    I’m only halfway through this piece (I’m a slow reader, and will continue tomorrow) and am most impressed with your writing. I felt I was reading one of those long pieces in the New Yorker.

    Is my understanding correct that German was (is) your first language? If so, I would never know this from how you write English, which you write as if you are a native English-speaker.

    I haven’t searched your blog yet to see if you’ve written any pieces about how you acquired your expertise in English. If you’ve not written such a piece, then I hope you will sometime do so.

    • Cyberquill

      I see you found the piece with the Fox News connection. Excellent. Take your time. You may be a slow reader, but I’m an even slower writer. Truth is, I don’t really “write” at all. Imagine a snail assembling a jigsaw puzzle in a pool of molasses—that’s me arranging and rearranging a mess of words into a sentence before moving on to the next. Same with my music. That’s why I can’t get anything done in life, because I’m toooo slooooooooow.

      Except when I do things I hate doing, like waiting tables. I’m a rocket in the dining room. (At least used to be. By now, I’ve gotten fired so often, word has spread even through a large place like New York City, so nobody hires me anymore, and Peter the rocket has been sidelined until further notice.)

      Yes, German is my native language, and no, I haven’t written—assembled—anything on the subject of my Englishexpertiseacquisition. (That’s how all these long words in German come to be. They just stick ’em together over there.)

      The plain truth is, I fell in love with English because most of my favorite music was recorded in English. Had Elvis sang Khmer, I’d be fluent in Khmer.

      As to the technical aspect of language acquisition, ever since I made that fateful—and apparently disastrous—decision to cross the Atlantic, I’ve been borderline maniacal about writing down, looking up, and then memorizing every little word or phrase I hear or read anywhere, no matter how seemingly mundane and insignificant. When I read something and come across a word I either (a) am unfamiliar with or (b) have seen before but not that often, or just an elegant turn of phrase, I must write it down. It’s a veritable compulsion. I’m incapable of passing by a word I don’t know or a sentence whose sound or rhythm I “like” without writing it down, no matter where I am, how dark it is, and how deep I may have to dig into my pocket to retrieve a pen.

      The sheer volume of English word and phrase lists I’ve compiled over the years rivals the U.S. tax code. Right here on my desktop, for instance, I have a 1,300+ page file of English expressions I’ve collected and typed up over the years, and it only goes back to 2005 when I started computerizing my vocabulary, so to speak. And then there’s my indispensable companion, a 100-page personal Thesaurus I made myself.

      Given all the effort I’ve put into learning this darn language, I’m actually not that impressed with the result. I should be a lot more eloquent by now, and a much faster sentence-assembler.

      In some sense, I suppose, if one hasn’t been exposed to a particular language prior to a certain age (like 8 or 10 or whatever the threshold may be), it’ll always remain a second language. But what with my word-mania of many years, and given enough time to arrange, re-arrange, proofread, and edit my sentences and paragraphs until they “feel” authentically English even to my non-native ears, I can fake it and pretend I’m a native speaker, at least on the page.The problem with talking is that pulling out a dictionary and looking up a word in mid-sentence sort of interrupts the flow of a conversation. Plus I’ve never been much of a talker, not even in German.

      So as to the process, I’m not a writer. I’m a jigsaw-puzzler. If I’m in a hurry, i.e., if I have less than an hour to put together and fine-tune a sentence, I sound like I just got off the boat. (I’m exaggerating to make a point, but not too much.)

      • Andreas

        That strikes a chord — I learned English when I was 13-14. I attempted to read the dictionary.

        Regarding slooooowness: I couldn’t help but be reminded of this Austrian joke (needs to be told with just the right accent)

        • Cyberquill

          Good one 🙂

          • Phil

            Do I deduce correctly that Bavarians, and others, look upon Austrians as all-around slow, hence the snails were too fast for the Austrian to catch? If so, das ist ein lustiger Witz, ha ha ha.

            It sounds like that Austrians the play the role in Germanic humour that Newfoundlanders do in Canadian humour, which has (or used to have -- I haven’t heard any in a while) the “Newfie” jokes, in which Newfoundlanders are slow and dull-witted.

            The way you compose English sounds uncomfortably like the way I attempt to compose French or German, except that your English end-product is a perfectly polished jewel, whereas my French or German end-product is a hole-riddled boat so rickety that if someone should glance at it, it’ll sink from just the energy emanating from the glance.

            Has, by chance, your writing in English improved your written German? I ask this because I think that my own pathetic attempts to write in German and French have, for what it’s worth, improved my written English.

            Sometimes, though, after an hour or two of my laboriously assembling a passage of French or German, the English I write in the hour or two after, has a distinct flavour of the French or German I’d assembled.

            • Cyberquill

              The German sample sentence you attempted to compose here is a perfectly polished jewel, too. No holes in the boat.

              I think what you’re asking me is whether you’re inducing correctly about Austrians being looked at as slow, not deducing. (The more often I’m being a smartass about this distinction, the sooner I shall remember myself which is which.)

              Austrians are generally looked at as a bit more laid back and sloppy as compared to the clichéd Germanic alacrity and precision. But from the way Bavarians talk and dress, an uninitiated alien would peg them as members of an Austrian tribe rather than Germans anyway, and quite frankly, I wasn’t aware that there was a specific class of Bavarian jokes about Austrians.

              Has my writing in English improved my written German? I have no idea. Except for occasional e-mails, I literally never write in German except for occasional translation work. It’s neat to be fluent in two languages, but I’ve never gotten much of a kick out of German. Somehow I much prefer the sound and flow of English.

  • Phil

    “…….I think what you’re asking me is whether you’re inducing…………..not deducing……….”

    Of course, you’re absolutely right. It’s been so long (over 40 years) since I took my sole course in logic, that I’d forgotten about induction.

    • Cyberquill

      I took my sole course in logic about three years ago on my iPod (an audio download produced by The Teaching Company), and I still remember some of it.

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