George had imagined this moment many times but had somehow never imagined the outcome. Liana was not simply an ex-girlfriend who had once upon a time broken George’s heart; she was also, as far as George still knew, a wanted criminal, a woman whose transgressions were more in line with those of Greek tragedy than youthful indiscretion. She had, without doubt, murdered one person and most likely murdered another. George felt the equal weights of moral responsibility and indecision weigh down upon him.
There are lies, damned lies and then there is Liana Dector, falsehood on feet, the sort of dame who puts the fatale in femme fatale. Of course she was also George’s long lost sweetheart from college, the one. George is a decent sort, an unexceptional guy who had the misfortune to cross paths with the wrong woman at a tender age, and never really recovered. She is the one who has been haunting his dreams ever since, the one for whom he would drop all others, the one for whom he would do anything, really, anything. When she walks back into his life what she asks does not seem all that much, really. Of course if it hadn’t been all that much, then George might have been spared a whole lotta trouble.
He’d known he was going to say yes to Liana even before he knew what it was that she wanted. He’d known the moment he’d let her into his apartment. He also knew that Liana was as trustworthy as a startled snake.
I am sure there are more than a few of us, particularly we gullible guys, who have a page of our private books dedicated to one person in particular, the one who broke our hearts the worst, the ones who came into, or more likely passed through, our lives at a point when the people we were becoming had not yet formed, when the clay was still damp, and left an impression, like a teen tagger in wet concrete. How does that scarring affect the rest of our lives? What directions do we take, or avoid, as a result? Two words work to describe George Foss once Liana returns to wrapping her desires around his dreams, poor bastard
The story is told in two time lines. The earlier covers the time when Liana and George first got together, in college, and George’s attempt to find out what was really going on with his gf of a semester when she takes a powder. This includes learning about Liana’s life in her Florida home. The latter, and larger stream is contemporary, and includes a crooked ex boyfriend from whom Liana snatched half a mill, an impressively violent enforcer sort, George’s on-again-off-again gf, a mysterious house well off the beaten path, and a payload of diamonds.
There is indeed a mystery here. Can anything Liana says be believed? What is the truth of her tales, both now and in the past? What is the nature of her relationship with her erstwhile bf and with the thuggish Donnie Jenks?
A few cops cross the stage but there is no primary PI in this noir tale. This book is less Raymond Chandler, and more North by Northwest. Liana’s favorite book is Daphne Du Maurier’s <i>Rebecca</i>, and you might extract some value by keeping that in mind. George has a cat named Nora, which might be a nod to The Thin Man, which featured Nick and Nora Charles. But I expect that one is a stretch. Are the references to hot and cold calculated nods to The Postman Always Rings Twice, or are we going all taffy-like again?
Liana is a person with several aliases, and that always makes one suspect there is content in here about identity. How do we become who we are? Can that change? What if people cannot or do not accept us for who we are? Can we ever get away from who we were? Notions of this sort abound.
I had become this different person, this person I’d rather have been—you know, in school, doing well, with a boyfriend, a boyfriend like you—but it was like I had a secret disease, or there was this clock inside of me, ticking like a heart, and at any moment an alarm would go off and [the girl I was then] would no longer exist. She’d die and I’d have to go back to being Liana Dector.
There are always some hesitations. I thought the notion of the book’s title was less than meets the eye. Few of the subsidiary characters come to life, much. But when you are flipping through pages as fast as I did and you will, such things generate as much concern as notions of morality to a sociopath. <i>The Girl With a Clock For a Heart</i> is a must-read thriller. Once you pick it up you will not be able to put it down, unless of course, that special someone from that special time all those years back should show up at your favorite reading spot and ask you for a favor. One look in those eyes and you know you won’t be able to say “no.”
Peter Swanson graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his book. The responses here have been only minimally edited:
How important is place in The Girl
What’s most important is the difference, class and otherwise, between New England and the fictional Sweetgum, Florida. Liana wants to reinvent herself, and part of that is leaving the town she lived in and never coming back. And when George visits Sweetgum it is important that he is out of his element.
Could it have taken place in locations other than Connecticut, Boston/New Essex, Florida?
The important thing would be the differences between the locations. The book is currently under option by a British film company, and writer/director James Marsh is working on an adaptation. I spoke with him about setting the story in England, which is his plan right now. He wants to substitute Oxford for Boston and a seaside town in East Anglia for Sweetgum. I thought this completely worked.
Why Tulum, and not, say Rio, Cancun, or the French Riviera?
The short answer is that I’ve been to Tulum and haven’t been to Rio or the French Riviera. The longer answer is that I just think there’s something incredibly evocative about Tulum, those Mayan ruins hovering above the ocean.
On your blogger profile, you list yourself as a writer of crime fiction and poetry. Which came first?
Poetry came first. I’ve been writing it since I was a kid, and for most of my twenties and thirties I worked very hard at becoming the best poet I could be. I’m not sure that worked out quite the way I had planned, but I wrote a few poems that, when I read them today, don’t make me physically ill. So that’s good.
Do they get equal time or is one dominant?
Right now, fiction is entirely dominant. I only write poetry now when I get an idea for a poem, and that happens very infrequently. I think I’m tapped out on poems. I don’t really write confessional poetry—e.g. Grandpa’s funeral, running into ex-girlfriend, etc.—so I sometimes feel like I’ve said all I can say in poetry form. This is one of the reasons I decided to do The Hitchcock Sequence, a sonnet for every Hitchcock film. It gave me a subject matter
You have written a lot of short crime fiction. Have you considered other genres, say police procedural, or horror or sci-fi?
I’ve written some horror short fiction and a little bit of sci-fi. It’s a matter of ideas, more than anything, and almost all of the ideas I get fall into the realm of mystery/crime. I like the idea of writing a solid police procedural but that involves a lot of research, and I’m pretty lazy about research.
When did you decide you wanted to write novels?
I started writing novels about ten years ago. At first, I just wanted to see if I could do it. I wrote a classic whodunit in which the amateur detective is a visiting writer/poet at a university. It was hard work, but more than that, it was a lot of fun. I loved spending a year in one fictional world, and I loved the feeling of finishing the novel, getting to the last page.
When did you start working on this one? Was it a prolonged gestation?
The Girl with a Clock for a Heart began life as a novella. It was essentially the college-years section of the book. My agent was the one who suggested that it could be turned into a book. The whole process probably took about two and a half years.
You are writing sonnets for all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Is that project complete?
All the sonnets are written, although a few them definitely need to be tweaked, or even re-written. I’ve been sending the poems out individually to journals and online magazines, and several have been published. At some point I’ll see if I can find a publisher for the whole sequence.
What impact did Hitchcock’s work have on your writing in The Girl?
Hitchcock is my favorite filmmaker, and he’s a big influence for that reason alone. Out of his 53 films there are at least ten or so that I re-watch frequently so they just seep in. James Marsh commented to me that he thought there was a real Vertigo vibe going on in The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, and that was news to me, although maybe he’s right. Definitely Irene is based on Midge, the Barbara Bel Geddes character from Vertigo.
What was the spark that started your engine in writing The Girl?
I was thinking about the difference between going to college now and going to college when I did, back in the 1980s. Nowadays, most teens have an established online identity. When you arrive as a freshman and meet someone new you probably run back to your room and look them up on facebook and find out everything about them. But in the olden days all these kids arrived in college, and they had a real opportunity to reinvent themselves. No one knew anything about anyone. That was the spark that led me to wondering how far a freshman year re-invention could go.
When you were writing did you have particular faces in mind, people you know, relatives, neighbors, actors?
I do and I don’t. Usually, when I start writing a character, I picture what they look like, often using actors, but as I keep writing that connection seems to fade. As I said before, when I pictured Irene in this book I was picturing Midge from Vertigo. Short blonde hair, glasses. But she’s the only character in the book that I had a real specific person I thought about.
Barbara Bel Geddes as Midge in Vertigo
I heard that there is a sequel in the works,
There actually isn’t. The book I’m working on right now is a new standalone thriller. I would write a sequel but I would need to come up with an idea first that would get the characters back together, and that hasn’t happened yet.
What is your physical writing methodology re when and how long?
I work at home in the morning, on my computer. I write 500 words a day on whatever it is I happen to be working on. That makes it sound like I’m incredibly disciplined but I do a whole lot of procrastinating before I start to write. Sometimes it’s reading, and sometimes it’s looking at mindless stuff online, or playing Candy Crush on my phone, but after doing that for a while, I eventually settle down into writing. I write my 500 words and then I quit. The most important part for me is that I’m writing every day, plus I think it’s important to read what you’ve written that day before you fall asleep. A lot of work can get done during a good night’s sleep.
In that case there are a lot of us who are incredibly productive. Thanks so much, Peter, for so generously offering your time. Best of luck with The Girl. I hope a lot of people get a chance to read it.
A fun site that deals in you-know-what, Noirwhale.com includes a lovely list of further links
A short story by Swanson, With the Lights Out
3 responses to “The Girl With a Clock for a Heart”
I linked to your post in my review, but just came back to actually read the whole thing, because I avoid reading reviews until I’ve written my own. Your review captures the essence of the book very well, and I enjoyed the interview with the author. I had the feeling I was missing Hitchcock and noir references all over the place while I was reading!
Thanks Laurie, for your kind evaluation and for linking to the interview. Swanson seems like a pretty decent sort.
I do the same as your e avoiding reading other reviews until I have written mine. AFter I am done, though I have ample opportunity to kick myself wondering how I missed this or that. I expect it is a hazard inherent in this sort of activity.
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