About Andrew Coburn
by Rick Ollerman
It’s said that writers can be good at short stories or good at novels but rarely good at both; it’s said so often it could even be true. However we define novels—character studies on the way to climax and denouement, page-turning narratives of plot device, deeper studies of theme and insights into life and humanity, flat out mind-striking entertainment, whatever–they strive to entertain. As do short stories, but without the luxury or curse of length, subtext—the things that are said without being written—becomes a much more important tool for the author to master in order to make his point. In a short story, this comes faster and sharper than in a novel.
Short stories may have more in common with poems than they do with novels. If a poem is a piece where every word must count, then every word wants to be the right word, the perfect word. A poem might be evocative, informative, sensual; it might be as alive as a single something that flares into existence, then disappears, leaving an imprint on the conscious mind. It might be a hummingbird that zooms past your head, there and gone, almost unrecognizable until that moment later when you realize what it was.
Short stories can do that: evoke, stimulate; use not only the perfect word in its precise, perfect spot, but use characters as word poems unto themselves.
Andrew Coburn was born in Exeter, New Hampshire in 1932. He went into the Army out of high school at age 18, serving time in Frankfurt. After his time in the service, he earned a college degree and became an award-winning crime journalist in Massachusetts. He covered organized crime and for a while carried a hand gun after learning a contract had been put out against his life.
He turned this experience to fiction. In 1965 he received the Eugene Saxton Fellowship—earlier recipients included James Baldwin and Rachel Carson—and published his first novel, The Trespassers, in 1974.
Known for his haunting prose about crime in the towns outside of Boston, Coburn began a trilogy with the novel Sweetheart in 1985; continued in 1987 with Love Nest; and concluded with Goldilocks in 1989. Nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Novel, Goldilocks gave way to Black Cherry Blues, the third entry in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series. Burke, like Coburn, is known for the lyrical use of language and staggering sentences that transcend the genres—mystery; thriller; psychological suspense—that they fill in the marketplace. Whatever they write about, the work itself is beautiful, even in most cases where it involves a subject as ugly as crime.
Author Ed Gorman says, “Andrew Coburn writes page-turners. A special kind of page-turner.” He also praises his “authenticity,” saying that “Andrew has BEEN THERE.” Of his most recent novel, 2006’s On the Loose, Gorman says:
“I've been saying for years that the single most neglected major crime fiction writer in the United States is Andrew Coburn. And here he is with a new novel to prove me right again. I've spent two days trying to think of a tidy way to describe On the Loose and thus far my best shot is to imagine a collaboration between John D. MacDonald and Ruth Rendell. MacDonald for the page-turning excitement of following the most unique serial killer since The Bad Seed and Rendell for [the quirky characters].”
Gorman continues. “And the writing itself. Coburn plays all the instruments in the orchestra… lyrical, funny, solemn, sarcastic, violent, terrifying and human in a way page-turners rarely are.”
High praise indeed. If Andrew Coburn is one of the unrecognized gems of the literary world, he certainly leaves his mark on those who discover his work.
In addition to his “Sweetheart Trilogy,” Coburn’s No Way Home (1992) and Voices in the Dark (1994) form a duology: tales of small-town Bensington, Massachusetts, “under pressure,” says Publishers Weekly of the first, “from city and state politics.” Of the companion novel: “This slick, suspenseful thriller, the second appearance […] of James Morgan, police chief of the seemingly peaceful Boston suburb of Bensington, begins with a suspicious death—and, as luck would have it, a self-confessed murderer. […] A somber conclusion at a private care facility involves the abandoned elders of Bensington families and underscores the long line of loneliness and dreary existence often at the core of small-town life.”
That last sentence leads us to one of the strengths of Coburn’s work. He looks at the quiet events below the surface of what appear to be typical American suburbs; he examines his characters deeply, and knows what moves them, makes them feel, imbues them with who they are.
In Spouses & Other Crimes, the first short story collection of his long career, Coburn tips his novels over to tell stories, not of crime per se, but of their hurt. Indeed, in this case, the use of the word “crimes” in the title might be a euphemism for the word “pain.” The tales he tells here are of the different forms of despair and longing, typically quiet, some unrecognized by the characters themselves. Dig a bit, and we all know, to one degree or another, these feelings in ourselves.
So these are not stories of the hunt for the solution to the dark and depraved. Here, the conflicts flare up between wants and desires and lives not yet turned true. The stories collected here originally appeared in various publications from 1964 through 2011; one, previously unpublished, appears here for the first time. If we look at the collection as the lifespan of a human being, the first story, “Charlie Judd,” centers on a twelve-year-old boy seeing his future in an encounter with a fifty-year-old man. It is a version of a certain kind of growing up; not troubled, exactly, but shadowed with omen and portent.
The last story, “Plum Island,” tells of another such encounter, terminating the line begun with “Charlie Judd.” Two fishermen talk: one younger, well equipped; the other older, angling with old, inappropriate gear; and the difference speaks volumes.
Darkness arrives quickly. We can no longer see where we have cast our lines. Nearby a fish is making its final argument with a hook baited by one of the other fishermen .The old man wonders aloud about the guilt of a fish that gives itself up so easily.
“Listen,” he says and tells me about the woman’s child, a boy of four, who buried a dead bird and exhumed it a day later, upset because it hadn’t risen. Then he talks about the woman’s face, which eventually gave out a silent message. “Ask me anything. I have no answers.”
[…] He reels in his line. No bait left on the hook, which is how he wants it. He separates the pole into two pieces. His box of sandworms is mine if I want it. He must return to Boston. Here at Plum Island, where things become lost forever in the sand or washed away with the tide, the world is ageless, all of a piece, fish and fisherman one, the fishermen interchangeable, ghosts of other generations. He and I are one, our age difference blurred.
The first story is longer, the young narrator’s life laid out before him; the last story, shorter, is about endings. In between is a cycle of stories that seem to age the way we do, each in our own manner, moving with the irregular phases of lives lived with faults, with pain, with regret, with mistakes.
This gives a poem-like structure to the collection as a whole; it’s also one story, the story of a single metaphorical life cycle, not only of one person, but of a collection of people who are, in some ways, similar to each other. Or to us, the readers of the stories. There’s a recurring character, a Dr. Wall who does something important: he listens, his welcoming ear a balm for clients in need of help, desperate for answers though he has few to give. In Coburn, we make our way through our lives more or less on our own. We can look for help from somewhere else, and while it may be soothing to look, we don’t necessarily find it.
There’s poetry in the individual stories themselves. In “Ginger,” a lost and talented writer leaves a trail of wrong men behind before she finds real love with perhaps the most damaged man she knows, the editor at the magazine where she works. And she knows she has to leave.
Standing on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, against a chill fall wind that sounded like a holler for help and would’ve bowled her over had she not clutched the rail, she began composing her last piece for Boston World. The first line struck a mood.
November is a bone begging for a dog.
There—an exact, precise description of the exact, precise moment that Ginger, ambitious and intelligent, re-launches her search for happiness. She may not find it easily. But then, most of us don’t.
Later stories show other character looking for their second acts, as Ellen Burnside does when she and her husband come into some money and need help to make it grow. Jack O’Grady is there, but he has his own lecherous motives. Coburn gives us pain to balance the pleasure, conflict to offset opportunity.
Life does not glide smoothly for these characters in Coburn’s stories. Some of his people appear similar but show different facets of pain and struggle as they chase their own elusive state of human happiness. Perhaps it can be achieved. Perhaps not. Some of us give up.
These stories that Coburn gives us are beautiful, lyrical portraits of a composite life, and there is something of an ambivalence to the collection as a whole, start to finish, that mirrors those same condition in real life.
These stories show us what it is to be human in Coburn’s world. Never all the way happy, never all the way miserable, but striving to use our gifts toward an elusive something, salmon swimming against the current, driven to spawn. Most remarkably, though, is the beauty in which the stories are told.
November is a bone begging for a dog?
Of course it is. In Andrew Coburn’s world, it has to be.