The Midnight Boat to Palermo. Rosemary Aubert. Carrick Publishing. 2016.
Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.
Is there a difference between the criminal mind and the mind possessed by an ordinary person? Have you ever wondered how a woman could convince herself she had no other option than to stay with her pimp? Or how a woman could be driven to crime by a bullying and patronizing man? Or what happens when you teach an illiterate man to read and his buddies, who have him passing on written messages, suddenly realise he is no longer illiterate?
You may find some answers to those questions in the latest book by Rosemary Aubert, the award winning author of the Ellis Portal mystery series and several other novels. This is a different sort of book for Aubert, who has released 4 volumes of poetry and 10 novels as well as a stack of romances earlier in her career. This book contains a series of 17 short stories created over the past twenty years. Every one is something of a mystery.
Aubert is something of a mystery herself, appearing to be a humble older woman but possessing several other important distinctions. In addition to her wonderful imagination, Aubert has worked as a security guard, as a bailiff in the criminal courts, as an office worker in a half-way house for men, and as the Community Relations Director for women leaving prison. It is easy to understand that these experiences may have given her the kernels for some of the stories included in this book. Yet those experiences are deepened by her subtle understanding of the person involved in an unexpected act that she weaves throughout her stories. Her imagination, and her experiences working with people involved with a crime, have only been amplified by her intuition and her formal study of criminology.
This book is a collection of 17 stories that range in their themes from prostitute encounters (Waiting for my Brother, On the Job), to the death of a cruel husband (Getting Rid of Cottage Pests), to a retired judge who cannot stop solving crimes (Water Like Stone), to an adult child’s memory of her father smuggling drugs (The Midnight Boat to Palermo). In other words, just as with her most famous series, the Ellis Portal mysteries, in these stories, Aubert is still writing about the variety of personalities and situations that are involved in committing a crime.
After writing more than 15 popular books, it should be no surprise that Aubert is highly skilled in creating her characters, right down to the voices that she creates for them. For instance, there is a tired, older cop who goes to a gym at the request of his wife: “I got a hundred and twenty pounds on her. She says she doesn’t want me to roll over one night and flatten her.” (The Thief)
Or there is the instructor for a class in strip-tease that the older narrator had mistakenly signed up for thinking it was a fitness class: “Hurry back, honey,” the teacher said sweetly. “You don’t want to miss anything. We’re going to get going on the moves in a few minutes.” (Taking Off)
Or there is the mother answering her young daughter’s ‘why did they never marry?’ question about the Martinelli sisters: She gave the dough a good hard punch. It popped out from under her fist, and she punched it again. “The truth is,” she said. “they never found a man who could treat them as well as they treat themselves…” (Old Maids)
In each instance, the words that the characters speak say reams about their character, helping you to imagine not only their facial expressions, but their physical gestures, their hair style, and even their attire.
Then there are the plots to her stories, which take you in, thinking you know how they will end but always providing an unexpected twist at the end. Ask anyone who writes short stories well, and they will tell you, they are difficult to write. I have heard authors say they’d rather write a novel because a short story requires the same attention to detail in a compact form. There isn’t one story in this book that doesn’t work well, though I definitely have some favourites, including the title piece.
Smell is the strongest link to memory, scientists say, and memory is important to an author’s link with their readers. Every author wants to get their reader that deeply involved with their story. Aubert knows how to use the sense of smell to enhance a tale. For instance, she has a retired judge visit the old Court House: “The heat of the old, cranky boiler system. The sweat of fear. The mustiness of papers long trapped in boxes and drawers” (The Bench Rests)
Or the desk person in a half-way house is asked for help by the cook: “She stood in front of my desk with a small piece of paper in her hand. She pushed it under my nose. It smelled of stew. There was a bright green piece of pea stuck to it.” (The Biker and the Butter)
Or a woman cooks her specialty dish for the family, “a tomato sauce that was famous in our little village”: “When the heated oil had turned the garlic as golden as itself, she would add pieces of beef. This meat, too, would soon turn a golden colour, filling our little house with its aroma. When the meat was done, she would add the tomato paste.” (The Midnight Boat to Palermo)
Aubert’s subtle attention to detail is seductive. It draws you in as a reader, draws you close to the heart of the story and its characters.
Then there are the visual effects, and Aubert creates atmospheric suspense with few words, as she does in this conversation between the teacher of a forensic class and his student: “Forgot your pen?” the instructor asked sweetly. “No, sir,” I replied, and I winked. He blushed. Cops blush all the time. Cry, too. No wonder, considering. (Shaving with Occam’s Razor)
Or the husband and wife who are trying to solve the mystery of what weapon was used in a local murder: “She picked up the paper and studied the photo. I leaned over and studied it, too. It was grainy. You could see the body and beside where it lay, you could see what looked like a little pile of ice, as though it had been chipped away from a window ‒or a path.” (Water Like a Stone)
Or the retired judge who visited the court room to watch his wife, who was testifying as a witness: “Don’t talk to me like I’m Alzheimer’s,” she said. That grim possibility had never occurred to the judge, but it did now. He looked at his wife. Nah. She had made a simple mistake, that was all. (The Bench Rests)
In fact, The Midnight Boat to Palermo offers readers 17 stories that will teach you a little about the secrets hidden in ordinary lives. These stories seem to suggest that, if you look close, you might discover something it will surprise you to know about your neighbours.