Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tower of Song: Travels with Thomas H Cook

Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

A book arrived in the post at my office on Friday that made me gasp with joy; even though it is ultimately a melancholic lament; a reflection upon sadness. But perhaps most interestingly it is an examination of what it means to traverse a reality, a planetary landscape that is as random, as it is dangerous. It also reminds us what it means to be human when monsters surround us [many of whom hide among us, well disguised], and observations of the places [on this planet] that haunt us. But it is a work that is ultimately uplifting; for the human condition is a complex one, where the extremes are troubling and where our existential thoughts can become real.


Melancholia is one of many characteristics of what it means to be human. As an emotional state of mind, Melancholia often lays dormant, awaiting a trigger or triggers. It is often a by-product of our thinking – ‘existential’ but it can be transformed into ‘the real’ by external as well internal forces [and dangerous lines of thought, or inquiry].

I am often reminded of the words [and music] of Leonard Cohen, who I turn to when my own mind turns melancholic, reflective.

Though melancholia as a state of mind has to be handled carefully, as it has legitimate purpose; for those who can manage the dark feelings that confront us from time to time. For those who understand Melancholia and can wrangle these feelings and gain strength from these existential thoughts.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’ alludes to this, particularly with this line -

There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in”

If you cannot tame feelings of melancholia that many of us get from time to time, there can be danger, as melancholia can alter our thinking, and brain chemistry leading us mentally into some dark places.

Incidentally, Cohen’s ‘Anthem was truncated and adopted [with permission] by the award-winning [and fellow Canadian] mystery writer, Louise Penny for the title of one of her Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries. It was Headline Publishing of Great Britain that first brought Penny’s mystery novels into print, with ‘Still Life’ being first showcased at the Canadian Embassy in London where many of us from the CWA gathered to celebrate its publication in 2005. Louise’s debut was a runner-up in the Crime Writers Association’s 2004 Debut Dagger Competition.


Many of us were deeply saddened last year to hear of the passing of her devoted husband Michael. Many of us had gotten to know this gentle Paediatrician over the years, as he often accompanied Louise to many events and cheered away when her talent was acknowledged by her peers [when her work gained award recognition]. To many of us, Louise and Michael, were one person, but in two bodies. The loss of a partner on the human mind is a hard thing to bear, and the management of grief and melancholia a task that takes effort and resolve; avoiding what writer John Irving once referred to as ‘the allure of the open windows’, from his 1981 novel The Hotel New Hampshire, which was filmed in 1984 by Tony Richardson.


A few colleagues [and friends] have my business address, so on occasion I receive reading material mailed to me at work. When that happens, it’s usually an item that is either ‘urgent’ or ‘important’. Anyone who has been sent on a time management’ or a ‘getting things done’ course will know the importance of being able to discriminate between these two existential states.

Last week was a tough but an enjoyable one. I arrived back in the office Friday, weary and looking forward to the weekend for a break. Despite having a number of pressing books awaiting my time; as well as a page count [in my own writing] that sits like a petulant child waiting for attention; something extraordinary arrived Friday morning in the mail that made me gasp.

My colleague Dan passed a parcel to me as he sifted through the incoming correspondence. I opened the package without thinking. When I saw the book it contained, I let out a ‘whoop!’ much to the amusement of Dan and my fellow colleagues. From the corner of my eye, I could see the good natured smiles and chuckles from my team. My colleagues understand my love affair with books, and the written word; in fact sometimes my passion for dark literature and film spill out into my day-job.


As I held the book in my hand, I realised I held a physical manifestation of the existential thoughts captured by one of the greatest exponents of mystery writing; now ripped from his mind, and held onto paper for others to absorb. It was a book I had thought a great deal about for some time now, as well as pondering about the life of its writer, and his own journeys; some which provoke deep and at times troubling thoughts.

I am talking about Thomas H Cook, one of the most literate of crime writers and an enigma in his own right.


I have to thank Publisher, Editor, Writer, Raconteur Otto Penzler, as well as George Easter and Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine for first introducing me to the work of Thomas H Cook; a writer who has challenged my way of thinking, as well as providing me insights into the dark side of human nature, while entertaining me with narratives that remain in my mind, like shards of jagged glass.

It was during my first Bouchercon, back in 2003 when I first met Otto, Larry and George. As bibliophiles we always exchange notes on our reading. Otto, George and Larry were surprised that I had never read the work of Thomas H Cook. In fact their surprise indicated to me [that as well read as I consider myself], something was missing, something lacking, something I had overlooked.

Thomas Cook has been published sporadically in Great Britain; back then he was with the Orion Publishing Group. Anyway, I corrected this omission in my reading by devouring as many Thomas Cook novels that I could lay my hands on, and ordering from the US any work not available in the UK. 

Over the years Tom’s path and mine have crossed either in London, Harrogate or at an annual US Bouchercon event; for the insight his imagination [coupled to his narrative ability] have brought to me has been very important. The novels of Thomas H Cook have made me ponder about human nature [especially its darker side], as well as providing me outstanding entertainment.

I have reviewed his work many times, as his fiction has deeply affected me so much so it is always a highlight when we meet up, and we talk. A particular time that is retained fondly in my memory is the lunch Tom and I shared with David Morrell and Larry Gandle during 2009’s Bouchercon Indianapolis. It was good to break bread and suck back a beer with very dear and old friends who share the pleasures of Crime and Thriller Literature. David Morrell is a literature professor, while Tom Cook also has a distinguished academic background in literature; while Larry Gandle and I are both Scientists and in our free time are Assistant Editors at Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine and Shots Magazine respectively – but all four of us are very good friends so when we meet up – it’s like we were never apart.

The main topic over lunch was the runaway success of Stieg Larsson’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, as Tom, Larry and David were amused at my championing this work from the get-go; though there was also a blanket of melancholia over the lunch. We knew of some recent troubling news from David Morrell. I am always in awe of David’s ability to manage unimaginable adversity; and then to have to confront heart-breaking adversity again; holding strong for the family takes inner resolve, stoicism – and for some, this means we have to write, in order to manage our thinking.

With writers, sometimes you can detect the frame of mind that they were in [at the time of writing a specific novel]. With David Morrell, his mind sometimes reflects and examines the melancholia in the lives of his fictional protagonists. David [like many writers when faced with deep adversity] threw himself into writing; fictionalizing the adventures of the Victorian writer Thomas De Quincey, in a stunning sequence of historic thrillers, which started with the award-winning Murder as a Fine Art. The third instalment in the series Ruler of the Night has just been released. David admitted to me that the Thomas De Quincey historical thrillers came to him during that dark period in 2009; though it would not be until 2014 during Bouchercon Long Beach that ‘Murder as a Fine Art’ would be awarded the 2014 Sue Feder Historical Mystery Award [as presented by Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International].

I am reminded of some words from British writer Graham Greene that helps explain why some of us are compelled to write.

“Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

Anyway, as ever I digress.

I was delighted when Quercus Publishing was set up, as the hands of Anthony Cheetham and Otto Penzler were evident in this niche publishing house’s inception. One of their first publications was Thomas H Cook’s Red Leaves, which was awarded the 2006 MWA Edgar Award, as well as Nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger. I have reviewed Tom’s work many times, as have far more lucid and qualified literary commentators. Though one factor that always haunts me is why Thomas H Cook’s work is not Stephen King in terms of sales; sure his mantelpiece is congested with many literary awards, from around the world, and is known and read avidly by the key critics of the Crime and Mystery Genre; so sure he sells well – but in my opinion, he should be selling in the volumes of someone like Stephen King. My reasoning is that he is the most literary of writers that have traversed my reading table; and he can tell a fine story, one that makes you think, ponder about our situation – the human condition.


The theme of Thomas H Cook being one of the treasures on the Crime and Mystery Genre, but a secret [of sorts], became the pivot in my 2009 feature interview at Linda Richards’ January Magazine [with a fine edit by Jeff Pierce] –

Ali : And you’ve become quite prolific since. So why -- despite your having received awards and critical acclaim -- do you remain a secret to many readers?

Tom : I truly don’t know the answer to that question, but the experience can be very disheartening, let me tell you. I think many readers just want a fast read. Which is fine. They have that right. But I don’t write fast reads. I think mystery readers in particular are quite demarcated in their reading habits. People who read puzzle mysteries don’t read thrillers, and people who read thrillers don’t read puzzle novels, and so on down thorough several subgenres. I write a combination mystery-mainstream novel, and that is a big problem, I think, in that mainstream readers very often never give mysteries a chance. I fall through a lot of cracks, and so far, despite wonderful reviews over a period of 20 years, I am still one of the best-known unknown writers out there.

Oddly enough, I have absolutely broken through in France and Japan, and seem close to doing it in England. The U.S., however, has not yet fallen under my spell. But I’m still working on it.

Ali : It just isn’t fair. I mean, some of my all-time favorite novels have come from your pen. Something’s not right here.

Tom : I couldn’t agree more, of course. And I am trying very hard to write the best books of my career at this point in my life. I may not always succeed, but I am always trying to deliver a very strong story, one that delivers in the writing, the story itself, and what lingers once the story has been put down, that strange, haunting aftermath.

Ali : Might the problem be that some readers classify you as a “literary writer”?

Tom : I am a literary writer in the sense that the writing really matters to me, and I try to do it well. But I am, more than anything, simply a storyteller, and for that reason I try not to abandon the story to my prose. I want each to serve the other, and yes, that makes me literary in that sense. That said, I would never write a novel in which the main character is a cigarette butt floating in a urinal, or a novel about a number, say eight, or a novel about a family so freakishly repellant that I wouldn’t spend dinner with such people, much less the time it takes to read 500 pages.

Read the Full Interview Here

Tom’s work often features in my best annual ‘reads of the year’, such as his remarkable novel Sandrine’s Case which was published in 2013 by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press and by Anthony Cheetham’s Head of Zeus in Great Britain.

I wrote at the time –

Cook constructs his narrative like a courtroom drama, but this novel offers a much more compelling tale about what actually led to the death of Sandrine, a woman as enigmatic as the ancient history she taught and brooded upon. Cook deftly explores the question of what we truly know about the people we love -- and, in reflection, what we truly know about ourselves. This novel was published in Britain as Sandrine (Head of Zeus).

Read more Here, and you may be amused to see that my review of this remarkable novel, has my thoughts regarding Stephen King’s Joyland just above it. As book reviewers, we do what we can to support writers that help our thinking, our insights into the world we find ourselves in. I am not ashamed to state that I have felt my eyes moisten at the end of some of Tom Cook’s novels; such has been the emotional impact his narrative skills and stories have brought to bear on this reader.

I know Facebook gets much maligned as a time-waster; but I have to temper that comment, that for many writers who work on a keyboard all day; it provides a break from the swirl of our thoughts as well as a quick way of keeping in touch with people [especially when they are scattered globally]. I had grown fond of Thomas Cook’s presence on FB as he had been putting up photographs of his travels, with his beloved wife Susan and daughter Justine. I have been fascinated by travel and what it does to our mind, and understanding of others, so I enjoyed seeing Tom Cook’s photographs. My annual trips to Bouchercon have allowed me to traverse North America over the years, and with purpose – my fascination with Crime, Mystery and Thriller fiction.

A specific series of photos from Tom’s FB page haunted me – they were images of ‘The saddest places on Earth’. Like the magnetism of viewing a car crash, I found the photographs intriguing as well as provoking deep thought. During some correspondence with Tom, he indicated that he was considering publishing a book featuring his travels to these sad places; regions on our planet that today are solemn reminders of the dark side of humanity and our plight here.

Then I heard the tragic news in 2014 that Susan Terner passed away, leaving Tom and Justine alone. He wrote an eloquent and heart breaking lament and celebration at the time about his wife, which I have pasted the opening -

Justine and I would ask that you remember Susan fondly as one who danced on table tops in Paris, Madrid and New York City; who belted songs and directed actors on the stages of Cape Cod; who put every conceivable thing in a plastic bag; who never saw a hammock or a cat she didn’t love; who claimed to have only 30 pairs of shoes when she actually had 147 and who, when confronted with that fact, declared that the additional 117 pairs in her collection didn’t “count” because they were inexpensive; who staunchly held to her non-belief through all her pain and anguish; who edited manuscripts so superbly her method is taught in master classes; who incessantly corrected everyone’s grammar, and once told a doctor to stop touching the bottom of his shoes; whose true vocation, as I often reminded her, would have been to be the Third Grade Teacher of the World.

So let’s move these recollections of mine to December 2016.

It was during the Peter James Christmas Lunch, hosted by The Ivy, in London that I found myself seated next to Alice Greary; a publicist who works with my very dear friends Tony Mulliken and Sophie Ransom. Over lunch, Alice and I got talking and she remarked that she really enjoyed my 2009 interview with Thomas Cook at January Magazine and found it most useful in researching a book and author she was working on. I asked which Author? Which she replied ‘Tom Cook’, and then told me about a non-fiction book by Thomas Cook that Quercus Publishing were going to release in 2017. 

The book was titled Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel. The penny dropped, and I realised that it was indeed the book that Tom had alluded to with the photos he posted on Facebook, detailing some of the world’s saddest places. Poor Alice witnessed the heights that my enthusiasm can scale, for when I get excited, I can become quite a sight. I pleaded with Alice, that when the first review copies are available I implored her to send me a copy.

Now we’re in January 2017.

The book arrived last Friday, and was inside the package that made me yelp and gasp amusing my colleagues; and the same book that I alluded to at the opening of this article.
I called Alice immediately to thank her. I asked her that I had assumed that Tom’s book on the ‘Saddest Places on Earth’ would have some illustrated pages from Tom’s Photos. Alice confirmed that indeed, there will be photographic plates in the finished book; but they were not present in the Galley-Proof. She kindly emailed me the photos, which I have permission to re-print a few here.

I also contacted Tom who currently resides in Los Angeles and he too granted me permission to reproduce any of his photos I wished; including the one that opens this article - of his beloved Susan and himself in a Tropical forest.  

Alice also sent me this synopsis of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel

'I have come to thank dark places for the light they bring to life.'

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness - from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of traveling to some of earth's most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Melancholia manifests itself in many shapes and forms, and one way of managing this state from becoming high anxiety, is [quoting Graham Greene] to write. In the hands of Thomas H Cook, rarely has a feeling of Melancholia been as insightful as to our condition; our humanity – and all from his mastery of the darkest edges of literature, Crime and Mystery Fiction.

I look forward to re-entering the thoughts and emotions that Thomas Cook’s narratives provide; but this time, it’s his first non-fiction work, a travelogue of sorts that appears as insightful and as thought-provoking as his fiction.

So to close this feature, I leave you with a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s The Tower of Song, by the Jesus and Mary Chain which not only provides the title for these thoughts of mine, about one of the finest of Crime and Mystery Writers.

You will be hearing from me again, as I will be reviewing this long anticipated work by Tom Cook, who has also kindly agreed to be interviewed by me again.

Until then, we’ve made sure that the Shots Bookstore has copies of Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel by Thomas H Cook available for pre-order [release date 6th April 2017] – Here


Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on
I'm just paying my rent every day in the Tower of Song

Leonard Cohen

Click Here, for the comprehensive 2009 interview with Tom Cook from January Magazine, that Alice Geary found on the Damp Floor of the Internet that Tom and I recorded during Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

I hope you found this article of interest, and piqued your interest in the work of Thomas H Cook, David Morrell and Louise Penny.


Ali Karim
London, England, January 2017

Addendum:

The only issue I see with regard to British Publication of this highly anticipated first non-fiction work by Thomas Cook, is that in the UK, the name Thomas Cook is synonymous with the nation’s most well-known travel agency; so some who purchase Tragic Shores : A Memoir of Dark Travel maybe a tad confused with this poignant travelogue; but will be ultimately rewarded by writing of the highest order; even if this volume is not what they anticipated by the Thomas Cook slogan “Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it!”.



Photos from Ali Karim, Thomas H Cook and Quercus Publishing reprinted with permission 

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