So much has been written about sharks that one might begin to wonder if new information about them is as threatened as the species itself. How many times can we terrorize ourselves with tales of bloody mayhem? How many life cycles can we ride? When every week is "Shark Week," what makes one week different from the next?
Juliet Eilperin's book 'Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks,' steps far enough back from the subject to get to the heart of the real question. Why are humans are so fascinated with sharks that we're bringing them to the brink of extinction? Sharks play a central role in this book, but it is the humans who study them, eat them, even call them that are the subject of 'Demon Fish.' Eilperin finds a fresh take on sharks by addressing the human side of the equation. Her exploration of how humanity looks at, lives with and preys upon the world's most ancient predator gives readers a nuanced vision of our relationship with not just sharks, but own nature as well as nature itself.
Eilperin's book is straightforward and unpretentious. Starting with her own experience at The Shark Lab, she then sets forth to explore the world via sharks and shark culture. We meet the Shark Callers of New Ireland, and journey back in time to explore the history of sharks and their interactions with humans. Worshipped as gods, feared as monsters, harvested as food, sometimes by the same people, a look at shark culture proves to be a pretty entertaining method of exploring the world.
Eilperin's prose and sense of journalistic pacing are excellent. The book is divided into a series of chapters, each of which explores a different aspect of our relationship with these ancient creatures. She manages to put a lot of things into perspective, pointing out, for example, that sharks are older than dinosaurs. The implication then, is that sharks survived whatever it was that wiped out the dinosaurs, even as we manage to bring them to the edge of extinction. She takes on the pointlessness behind the slaughter of sharks for shark fin soup.
Eilperin knows that readers need characters to bring together a book, and she's adept at creating them even in her episodic format. From Selam Karasimbe, the world's most famous shark caller to "Mark the Shark" Quartiano, who specializes in fishing for and killing sharks to marine biologist Steve Palumbi to shark tracker Ellen Pikitch, Eilperin reaches beyond the cultural and into the personal lives of humans and sharks. Her even-handed approach ensures that we never feel as we're being preached to. Instead we see the world through the eyes of her characters.
Eilperin is smart enough to know that readers love to read about reading, so she gives us a nice history of shark lit and movie lore. You even get a section of color plates in the middle of the book that includes Bruce the mechanical shark from the movie Jaws. 'Demon Fish' does give readers a good dose of lore about the creatures themselves, of course, given that it looks so closely at those studying them. This is a book about more than the ocean's deadliest predator. 'Demon Fish' is engrossing and entertaining, but Juliet Eilperin makes it perfectly clear who the real predator is, and the potential downside of our unfettered killing spree.
08-22-11:Michael Harvey Watches as 'We All Fall Down'
21st Century PI Fiction
The noir detective as we know him is a creation of the twentieth century. While there are many spins on this character and the stories that unfold, neither the writers nor the readers seem anxious to acknowledge that we left that century behind over a decade ago. Writers in the science fiction genre have taken this character and genre into the future. John Courtenay-Grimwood's Arabesk series and George Alec Effinger's Maurid Audran novels are good examples of how this can be done.
Michael Harvey's 'The Third Rail' hinted at that Harvey might take his PI, Michael Kelly and the private eye genre into this century, and 'We All Fall Down' makes good on that promise. Treading a very difficult terrain with grace, economy and the same supple strength that made his first three novels outstanding reading experiences, 'We All Fall Down' acknowledges that we live in a very different world, where individuals can make choices with catastrophic consequences for a city, and even a nation. Harvey keeps Michael Kelly's feet on the gritty streets of Chicago even as he writes about the reality of bioinformatics and the implications of "black biology."
Harvey always handles his plots deftly and 'We All Fall Down' is no exception. Readers are advised to read 'The Third Rail,' if not all three previous books beforehand. They're well worth your time. That said, you can jump in here and find that Harvey excels at putting readers quickly into the action, then propelling his characters through a grittily-evoked Chicago cityscape. 'We All Fall Down' begins with what appears to be a false alarm. When an experimental anthrax detector in a subway tunnel registers positive, all the signs suggest that there will be nothing to worry about. But nobody's taking any chances, and Michael Kelly's personal angle on the case makes sure that he's involved.
Harvey does a nice job here of introducing new characters and bring back his regulars. Vincent Rodriguez now has a paramour, and Hizzonor the Mayor is always a delight, particularly here, where he must confront his own foes in the form of Homeland Security operatives who will happily use him and his city for their own agenda in much the same manner he uses Kelly. Venture capital scientists and startup firms able to build formidable labs in major American City offer Harvey the opportunity to create some very nicely nuanced damaged damsels. Kelly's personal life is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that makes sense in the aftermath of 9/11.
Harvey sets himself a pretty difficult goal in 'We All Fall Down,' because he's got to introduce a heretofore unthinkable crime into his PI plotline. He distinguishes himself nicely by virtue of exploring a realistically evoked new science with damaged characters. He knows how to use the PI storylines to explore the world of bio-terror and its counterparts without dumping large blocks of exposition on the reader. He uses some of the tropes of both science fiction and the thriller genres in a more realistic manner but they're firmly embedded in crime fiction that involves drugs, gangs and inner city woes.
Through all this, Harvey keeps the focus close and the perspective grounded. There are of course bigger implications here, but readers are going to worry as much about Kelly and his friends as they are about the bigger implications of black biology. For readers, ultimately, the most important implications are for the PI genre itself. Michael Harvey has brought all the traditions of the twentieth-century PI into a twenty-first century story. We're barely ten years in. 'We All Fall Down' suggests it's going to be a tough journey. The fact that Michael Kelly can survive doesn't necessarily imply that we can.
New to the Agony Column
03-11-14: Commentary : Ian Rankin Ordains 'Saints of the Shadow Bible' : Standing in the Shadow of the Past