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The Nitty Gritty

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Murder and Magic in "Furious Hours" and "Magic for Liars"



Crime fiction is nothing new; those of us who had the privilege of growing up the age of Law & Order, Lord of the Rings, CSI, and Harry Potter—not to mention all of their various incarnations, iterations, spin-offs, and successors—were more or less weaned on a steady drip of murder and magic. Of course, our obsession with secondhand witness to tragedy and trauma goes much further back, to the earliest recorded epics and sagas, which is wholly appropriate, because neither the Epic of Gilgamesh’s unknown authors nor Homer made much of a distinction between a world in which murder happens and a world in which magic happens, too.

One would assume that future data archaeologists will have a lot more to say about this, but it really does seem as though, despite our early and continuous interest in the subject, murders are having a bit of a moment in media, from comics to books to podcasts to television and film. Whether we’re talking about massive franchises such as Game of Thrones, in which murder and magic are both essential tools of empire, or the breakout podcast My Favorite Murder, wherein its hosts routinely reference pop culture and wisecrack about perpetrators’ appearances while simultaneously discussing bridge collapses, assaults, mental health crises, and murders—or the thousands of books, both traditionally and self-published, fiction and nonfiction, hitting the market each year—it very much seems as though we’re settling into our obsession with increasing nuance and comfort.

I’ve read two books recently which really bring this home for me. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books recently, but these two were specifically talking to each other on some level that was both unexpected and incredibly rewarding.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee is perhaps not a title that one would automatically expect to find on a blog associated with a podcast about science fiction and fantasy. But that’s great! I like being difficult and obscure in my reasoning! Many others have written eloquently about this book’s well-researched material and well-constructed internal organization; these are worthy reviews that will help many nonfiction lovers with established interests in journalistic reporting and the nonfiction novel to find the book. But me? I’m here for the genre-fiction aficionados, those who crave a little magic with their murder. Those who wouldn’t normally browse the nonfiction aisle while on the hunt for inspiration. I’m here to tell those people, my people, that this book is totally worth the time.

Why? Because, at its root, Furious Hours is about what it takes to make a book happen. It’s about the bits which suck us in to a new story: a compelling event, central characters one can’t help obsessing over, and a twist (or ten) that nobody saw coming. It’s also about the hardships of writing—and I don’t mean the kind of hardships that certain kinds of writers revel in as a kind of rite of passage, but rather the hardships of writing true stories, fictional or nonfictional, that preserve something of the world whole and fixed as though in amber for the masses to turn this way and that. Getting at truth in a book of any kind is rare and precious, and the cometary success of To Kill a Mockingbird showed the world that Harper Lee could write such a book, but Lee herself wasn’t so sure of how to make that peculiar kind of lightning strike twice. In her early successes were sown her later struggles, and she spent her middle years agonizing over how to write another story that would prove her first efforts weren’t a fluke. Casey Cep, a powerful writer in her own right, merges the two threads of her book—the murders, and Lee’s attempts to chronicle them—in a seamless play of crisis-on-crisis.

There’s a lot more I could say about Furious Hours, and each time I place our library’s copy in a new reader’s hands I find myself framing my recommendation differently. For readers of science fiction and fantasy, I place this book in their hands with a warning as well: Here is a book about storytelling and storytellers and about the ways in which we cave into our individual and collective worst instincts. But of course, it’s also a book about the magic, such as it is, of crafting a well-told story. It has layers, like an ogre. It’s a tortured magic, and it’s one that cuts to the heart of this thing that we love that we can’t quite explain, when words pull us a dozen different directions, with a hot undertow in the blood flowing underneath.

 The relationship between murder and magic gets a fresh twist in Magic for Liars¸ Sarah Gailey’s debut novel—which has its book birthday today, on June 4th, with To as publisher. With its bright cover and eye-catching design (literally as well as figuratively!) this is a book that emotes. Gailey previously released the American Hippo duology (made up of River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow) as well as the Fireside/Serial Box production, Fisher of Bones, demonstrating a deft hand in navigating weighty content with empathy and skill. It is no surprise, then, that Magic for Liars raises that bar yet again in offering readers certain familiar tropes—the tortured antihero private investigator, the femme fatale, and the obsessive teen, just to name a few—and nestling them within the recognizable voice of noir fiction as well as the lush campus of a school for magical teens. Readers are offered a choice: Read the book one way, and all the tropes fall in line, one after the other, leading to a satisfying and thoroughly noir denouement worthy of the torchbearers of that genre. Read the book another way, and you suddenly discover that magic isn’t just a thing certain people can do, but the inexplicable thing which binds us to each other in magnetic relationships that either repel or attract—or manage to do both at once.

As in all dualities, these two ways of reading are not truly opposed; they are complementary. They coexist. They will always coexist. And in so doing, they will torment us forever, in ways that will either continuously deconstruct or continuously reconstruct our identities and our ability to connect to each other.

Just as Furious Hours gets its teeth into what goes into storytelling as a building block of identity, Magic for Liars chews on identity as a product of self-invention, and reinvention. Characters, both magical and non-magical, work hard to perfect their performance of self, and they wear those performances like armor. Teens adrift in the melee of emotional demands that make up the transition into adulthood add highlights to their hair, and an extra sparkle to their eyes, because if they can only just pretend to be perfect long enough, maybe the worst that the world can throw at them—murder and worse—will just slide right off and leave no smudges on the futures they hope so desperately are still waiting for them outside the school’s walls. Adults add those same highlights and sparkles because they know those smudges are permanent, and they might as well look untouchable even though they’re very much … not.

Everyone is touchable when it comes to trauma, as Gailey makes plain. No matter how thick one’s armor, the world gets in. Family gets in. And it’s only through willingly making oneself open to the feelings and needs and predations and loves of others that one can find a path through. That one can construct an identity—queer, straight, magic-user, sister, murderer—that fits. Magic doesn’t change that. Magic is that.

Magic for Liars cuts deep. But it’s not the kind of noir fantasy that privileges the titillation of crime over the depth and nuance and many-layered innocences of its characters. It’s a book of discovery, and connection, and a conversation about what is at the rock-bottom of human nature. Is it love? Is it fear? Is it the ability to hurt or harmonize with others? Gailey gets pain. They get that pain resides not just in the mind, but in the marrow.

Who are we and what makes us capable of hurting each other? How can we get past the hurt to the healing? How can we build stories out of pain and loss and personal desolation that will better the world?

Folks, read these books!