Friday, April 29, 2016

Sensational Treats

Because I am adamantly opposed to its neoconservative politics, I very rarely have reason to look at The Weekly Standard (a Rupert Murdoch-owned publication), much less recommend its contents. However, I enjoyed its recent piece about 19th-century English novelist Wilkie Collins. In it, Sara Lodge observes that
Collins wrote over 20 novels, but today is chiefly remembered for two: The Moonstone (1868), arguably the first English detective novel, and The Woman in White (1859), a breathless mystery involving spousal abuse and attempted homicide, doubles, incarceration, madness, and a ground-breaking narrative method in which we hear from several different narrators in turn, as if they were witnesses in court, and piece the "truth" together from their fractured accounts.

These novels electrified 19th-century Britain and America. Indeed, the genre of which Collins was the presiding master became known as the "sensation novel." Thomas Hardy complained that such fiction contained "murder, blackmail, illegitimacy, impersonation, eavesdropping, multiple secrets, a suggestion of bigamy, amateur and professional detectives." The sales figures attest that being shocked was a guilty pleasure that thousands of Victorians relished.

Where the Gothic novels of the previous century had depicted horrors that occurred in the monasteries and castles of Roman Catholic Italy and France, Collins pioneered a domestic Gothic that played out in ordinary, contemporary British streets and houses: what he dubbed "the secret theatre of home." His novels suggest the possibility that we are all impersonating someone and we are all hiding something. Freudian psychoanalysis would develop these insights, arguing that what is
unheimlich (uncanny) is precisely that which is heimlich (domestic). We are the monsters of whom we are afraid.
You will find Lodge’s whole article here.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

And the Edgars Go To …

Thanks to the hundreds of people attending tonight’s Edgar Awards ceremony in New York City—many of whom claim Twitter accounts or Facebook pages, and damn fast typing fingers—we have been able to compile the list of who and what won those various prizes.

Best Novel: Let Me Die in His Footsteps, by Lori Roy (Dutton)

Also nominated: The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter (Putnam); The Lady from Zagreb, by Philip Kerr (Putnam); Life or Death, by Michael Robotham (Mulholland); Canary, by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland); and Night Life, by David C. Taylor (Forge)

Best First Novel by an American Author: The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)

Also nominated: Past Crimes, by Glen Erik Hamilton (Morrow); Where All Light Tends to Go, by David Joy (Putnam); Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll (Simon & Schuster); and Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking)

Best Paperback Original: The Long and Faraway Gone,
by Lou Berney (Morrow)

Also nominated: The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, by Malcolm Mackay (Mulholland); What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan (Morrow); Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street); Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street); and The Daughter, by Jane Shemilt (Morrow)

Best Fact Crime: Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by Allen Kurzweil (Harper)

Also nominated: Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide, by Eric Bogosian (Little, Brown); Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World that Made Him, by T.J. English (Morrow); Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime, by Val McDermid (Grove Press); and American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic, by John Temple (Lyons Press)

Best Critical/Biographical: The Golden Age of Murder, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins)

Also nominated: The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Putnam); Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (Arcade); Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, by Matthew Parker (Pegasus); and The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, by Nathan Ward (Bloomsbury USA)

Best Short Story: “Obits,” by Stephen King (in Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King; Scribner)

Also nominated: “The Little Men,” by Megan Abbott (Mysterious Bookshop); “On Borrowed Time,” by Mat Coward (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], May 2015); “The Saturday Night Before Easter Sunday,” by Peter Farrelly (in Providence Noir, edited by Ann Hood; Akashic); “Family Treasures,” by Shirley Jackson (in Let Me Tell You, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt; Random House); and “Every Seven Years,” by Denise Mina (Mysterious Bookshop)

Best Juvenile: Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy, by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman)

Also nominated: Catch You Later, Traitor, by Avi (Workman); If You Find This, by Matthew Baker (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers); Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester (HarperCollins Children’s Books); and Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands (Aladdin)

Best Young Adult:
A Madness So Discreet, by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen)

Also nominated: Endangered, by Lamar Giles (HarperTeen); The Sin Eater’s Daughter, by Melinda Salisbury (Scholastic Press); The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma (Workman); and Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner (Clarion)

Best Television Episode Teleplay: “Gently with the Women,”
George Gently, teleplay by Peter Flannery (Acorn TV)

Also nominated: “Episode 7,” Broadchurch, teleplay by Chris Chibnall (BBC America); “Elise,” Foyle’s War, teleplay by Anthony Horowitz (Acorn TV); “Terra Incognita,” Person of Interest, teleplay by Erik Mountain and Melissa Scrivner Love (CBS/Warner Brothers); and “The Beating of Her Wings,” Ripper Street, teleplay by Richard Warlow (BBC America)

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award:
“Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick,” by Russell W. Johnson
(EQMM, January 2015)

Grand Master:
Walter Mosley

Raven Awards:
Margaret Kinsman and Sisters in Crime

Ellery Queen Award:
Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International

The Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award: Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day (Seventh Street)

Also nominated: A Woman Unknown, by Frances Brody (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne); The Masque of a Murderer, by Suzanna Calkins (Minotaur); Night Night, Sleep Tight, by Hallie Ephron (Morrow); and The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)

Congratulations to all of the writers taking home awards tonight!

READ MORE:Viet Thanh Nguyen Adds Edgar Award to Pulitzer Triumph,” by Alison Flood (The Guardian).

Bullet Points: Discoveries and Losses Edition

• The next few days will bring plenty of welcome excitement to the American crime-fiction community. Tonight we can expect to hear which books and fortunate authors have won the 2016 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, presented by the Mystery Writers of America (the list of nominees is here). And then, as Les Blatt reminds me, tomorrow begins this year’s Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland, during which the latest batch of Agatha Awards is to be handed ’round (click here to be reminded of the contenders). I’ll post the winners in both contests as soon as I receive the results.

• In Reference to Murder reports that “Harper Lee’s biographer, Charles J Shields, believes he’s found a new, previously unknown Harper Lee text, a feature article written for the March 1960 issue of the Grapevine, a magazine for FBI professionals. The article focused on the gruesome [1959] murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon, at their farmhouse in Kansas, the subject of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Lee accompanied Capote, her childhood friend, on his assignment for The New Yorker, reporting on how the community was reacting to the brutal murders.”

• This Sunday, May 1, will bring the sixth and last episode of Grantchester, Season 2, a PBS-TV Masterpiece offering based on James Runcie’s Grantchester Mysteries. (A third season has already been ordered. You will find recaps of the second-season eps here.) Beginning on Sunday, May 8, Masterpiece will begin hosting the final, three-episode run of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander. Omnimystery News has a brief synopsis of the show; a preview clip is below.


• Here’s something I haven’t seen in, oh, four decades, and might not have spotted even now had it not been for a tip from author-publisher Lee Goldberg. As you may know or perhaps remember, from the fall of 1975 through most of 1978, Robert Wagner and Eddie Albert starred in a CBS-TV detective drama titled Switch. They portrayed Los Angeles private-eye partners, Wagner’s Peterson T. Ryan being an erstwhile con man, while Albert played retired bunco cop Frank McBride. A few years ago, I managed to purchase a bootleg copy of the Season 1 episodes of Switch (the show’s best year, from what I recall), but the guy who sold it to me didn’t also have available the series’ 90-minute pilot film, Las Vegas Roundabout (originally shown on March 21, 1975). Ever since, I’ve been on the lookout for that pilot—and thanks to Goldberg, I finally found it! Click here to watch the movie for yourself. It co-stars Sharon Gless, Charlie Callas, Charles Durning, Jaclyn Smith, and Ken Swofford.

• In addition to carrying early reviews of Shaft: Imitation of Life, Part 3, the latest graphic-novel collaboration between by David F. Walker and artist Dietrich Smith, Steve Aldous—author of The World of Shaft—has posted in his blog Dynamite Entertainment’s Robert Hack-painted cover for the paperback reprint of Ernest Tidyman’s original, 1970 novel, Shaft, due out in August.

• Vince Keenan has a splendid piece in his blog about screenwriter and novelist Roy Huggins (1914-2002), who’s best known for creating TV series such as Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Rockford Files, but who also scripted the 1949 noir film Too Late for Tears.

• Critic-anthologist Sarah Weinman notes, in the latest edition of her newsletter, The Crime Lady, that
Masako Togawa, icon of Japanese cabaret and of crime fiction, died earlier this week in her mid-80s (I’ve seen reports of her being 83 and 85). Her work was woefully under-translated into English; just four of dozens of novels, and a single short story that [Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine] published in the late 1970s. My own favorites are The Master Key and Lady Killer, dark, psycho-sexual examinations of femaleness and oppression that were weird and prescient, and both fit well within American and UK domestic suspense and also blasted right past. I also wish I could have seen the TV show she starred in and produced, Playgirl, which essentially predicted Charlie’s Angels but without the overseeing male specter; it was all badass women. It’s sad to think Togawa’s death might spur some enterprising publisher to translate and issue her work in a proper manner, but if that’s what it takes, then somebody do that. (Also see Jiro Kimura’s short obit and reminiscence.)
My favorite cover of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.

• Congratulations to Linda Boa and her crime fiction-oriented blog Crimeworm, which today turns two years old.

• Let’s also hear a hearty round of applause for Patricia Abbott’s weekly “forgotten books” series, which celebrated its eighth anniversary a few days ago. The Rap Sheet’s many contributions to that series can be enjoyed here.

• I noted earlier this month that Ian Fleming’s onetime literary agent, Peter Janson-Smith, had passed away at age 93. But now author Raymond Benson, who revived Fleming’s James Bond series long after the creator’s death, offers up a short tribute in CinemaRetro.

• Since I recently interviewed Con Lehane, author of the April series opener Murder at the 42nd Street Library, I was very interested to read his summation of that particular New York City library’s abundant “wonders,” posted in Criminal Element.

• Yeah, yeah, it’s only the end of April. But Bill Ott, who reviews crime, mystery, and thriller fiction for the American Library Association’s Booklist, has already selected what he says are the best crime novels of 2016 (as reviewed in Booklist from May 1, 2015, through April 15, 2016). Included among his picks: Don Winslow’s The Cartel, Bill Beverly’s Dodgers, Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele, and Lori Rader-Day’s Pretty Little Things. In addition, Ott chooses—at the same link—a number of standout crime-fiction debuts, among them Nicholas Seeley’s Cambodia Noir, L. S. Hilton’s Maestra, and Scott Frank’s Shaker. This is certainly a thoughtful rundown of recent genre releases, but I think I’ll wait until December to assemble my own subjective tally of the years “bests.” (Hat tip to Randal S. Brandt)

• Registration is now open for NoirCon 2016, which is set to take place in Philadelphia, October 26-30. If you wish to attend but haven’t yet registered, you can do so either online or via snail-mail.

• R.I.P., James Bond film director Guy Hamilton.

• Republican former House Speaker John Boehner’s recent remarks about underdog GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz being “Lucifer in the flesh … I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life,” inevitably reminded me of a post I composed last November for my Killer Covers blog.

• Alex Segura, author of the recent Miami-set novel, Down the Darkest Street, has put together a list, for Mental Floss, of his eight favorite Florida crime-fiction characters.

Here’s a perfect gift for fans of historical true crime.

• While we’re on the subject of weird history, consider this tale from The Lineup about a husband who had so much trouble being parted from his deceased wife, that he eventually moved right into her mausoleum at Brooklyn, New York’s Evergreen Cemetery.

• Wow, the roster of guest performers scheduled to appear in the coming Twin Peaks revival (set to air on Showtime at some as-yet-undecided date in 2017) has grown immensely.

• Meanwhile, the first trailer is available for the film adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train (which was one of my favorite crime novels of 2015). The action has apparently been moved from London to New York City, but the trailer suggests that most of Hawkins’ original intent has been maintained on screen. This film, which is due for release in early October, stars Emily Blunt as Rachel Watson, “a heavy-drinker who develops an obsession with a couple she regularly sees while on her commute to work,” explains The Guardian. “After the woman disappears, Rachel becomes entangled in the investigation.” Watch the trailer for yourself here.

From Mystery Fanfare:Dean Street Press announces the first 10 Patricia Wentworth novel reissues will be out on May 2. This is part of a major project to republish all 33 of her non-Miss Silver mysteries, some of which haven’t been in print or available for many decades. The remaining 23 will be published in a further two batches in June and July. The first 10 include the four Benbow Smith mysteries, featuring the eminence grise Benbow Smith, and his loquacious parrot Ananias. The first batch also includes Silence in Court from 1945, which is an exceptional courtroom mystery.”

• Although he wasn’t technically invited to contribute to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s “John D. and Me” series of posts, all celebrating the coming July 24 centennial of John D. MacDonald’s birth, educator-turned-novelist Bill Crider decided to post his own remembrance of MacDonald’s influence on his reading and writing life.

• The next time I read a new work described as a “fiction novel,” I’m going to haul my sorry ass out to some secluded spot and scream at the top of my lungs. Pay attention, people! Think before you write!

• Tipping My Fedora blogger Sergio Angelini decided to poll his readers on the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films from each decade of the director’s career. He wound up with 11 selections, including Blackmail (1929), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Birds (1963), Psycho (1960), and Rear Window (1954). You’ll have to click here to see which production won the most votes.

• Jordan Foster, formerly an editor at The Life Sentence, chooses 10 of her favorite police-procedural writers for Library Journal. I’m pleased to see both John Ball (author of the Virgil Tibbs novels) and Elizabeth Linington (aka Dell Shannon, creator of the Lieutenant Luis Mendoza series) make the cut.

•  A few interviews worth checking out: Laura Lippman talks with Baltimore magazine about her brand-new standalone thriller, Wilde Lake; Dan Fesperman gives Speaking of Mystery’s Nancie Clare the lowdown on his new historical mystery, The Letter Writer; Allison Brennan talks with Crimespree’s Elise Cooper about her psychologically intense new tale, Poisonous; and Chet Williamson addresses questions from Crime Fiction Lover about Robert Bloch’s Psycho: Sanitarium, his follow-up to Bloch’s 1959 novel.

• And it’s quite pleasing to see another reader fall for the multiple delights of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series (The Other Side of Silence). “I think there are three elements that make the books so fascinating,” David Edgerley Gates writes in SleuthSayers. “The first is historical irony. In more than one novel, actually, the story’s framed with a look back, from the later 1940s or the early 1950s. Secondly, there’s a constant sense of threat, the Nazi regime [being] a bunch of backstabbers ... One dangerous patron is Reinhard Heydrich, a chilly bastard who meets an appropriate end. And thirdly, Bernie is really trying to be a moral person, against all odds. You go along to get along, to simply survive, in a nest of vipers, and hope it doesn’t rub off on you. After seeing the Special Action Groups at work in Russia, and himself participating, Bernie is sickened by the whole enterprise. He suspects, too, that the handwriting’s on the wall.”

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Seeking CrimeFest Rewards

The organizers of this year’s CrimeFest—which is set to take place in Bristol, England, from May 19 through 22—have announced the nominees for five different awards to be given out during a special ceremony on Saturday, May 21. They are as follows …

Audible Sounds of Crime Award (for best unabridged
crime audiobook):

Sleep Tight, by Rachel Abbott; read by Melody Grove and
Andrew Wincott (Whole Story Audiobooks)
Make Me, by Lee Child; read by Jeff Harding
(Random House Audiobooks)
The Stranger, by Harlan Coben; read by Eric Meyers (Orion)
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith; read by Robert Glenister (Hachette Audio)
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins; read by Clare Corbett, India Fisher, and Louise Brealey (Random House Audiobooks)
Finders Keepers, by Stephen King; read by Will Patton
(Hodder & Stoughton)
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz;
read by Saul Reichlin (Quercus)
I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh; read by David Thorpe and
Julia Barrie (Hachette Audio)
Even Dogs in the Wild, by Ian Rankin; read by
James Macpherson (Orion)

Kobo eDunnit Award (for the best crime fiction e-book):
Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay (Orion)
The Crossing, by Michael Connelly (Orion)
A Bed of Scorpions, by Judith Flanders (Allison & Busby)
A Southwold Mystery, by Suzette A. Hill (Allison & Busby)
Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (Allison & Busby)
Freedom’s Child, by Jax Miller (HarperCollins)
Blood, Salt, Water, by Denise Mina (Orion)
The Silent Boy, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)

The Last Laugh Award (for the best humorous crime novel):
The Truth and Other Lies, by Sascha Arango (Simon & Schuster)
As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, by Alan Bradley (Orion)
Mrs. Pargeter’s Principle, by Simon Brett (Severn House)
Bryant & May and the Burning Man, by Christopher Fowler (Transworld)
Smoke and Mirrors, by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
The Case of the ‘Hail Mary’ Celeste, by Malcolm Pryce (Bloomsbury)
Mr. Campion’s Fox, by Mike Ripley (Severn House)
Savage Lane, by Jason Starr (No Exit Press)

The H.R.F. Keating Award (for the best biographical or
critical book related to crime fiction):

The Sherlock Holmes Book, by David Stuart Davies and
Barry Forshaw (Dorling Kindersley)
The Golden Age of Murder, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins)
The Man with the Golden Typewriter: Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters, by Fergus Fleming (Bloomsbury)
Crime Uncovered: Detective, by Barry Forshaw (Intellect)
Curtains Up: Agatha Christie—A Life in Theatre, by Julius Green (HarperCollins)
Criminal Femmes Fatales in American Hard-boiled Crime Fiction,
by Maysam Hasam Jaber (Palgrave Macmillan)
Crime Uncovered: Anti-hero, by Fiona Peters and
Rebecca Stewart (Intellect)
John le Carré: The Biography, by Adam Sisman (Bloomsbury)

In addition, there are six contenders for the 2016 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year. Those books and authors were announced earlier this month.

Congratulations to all of the nominees!

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Pierce’s Picks

A periodic alert for followers of crime and thriller fiction.

Steps to the Gallows (Allison & Busby) is Edward Marston’s second boisterous adventure for Peter and Paul Skillen. Those identical twins are more-than-capable “thief-takers,” but when it comes to bodyguarding, they’re less than perfect. As this tale commences, it’s 1816, in London, and Leonidas Paige—an ex-soldier who has turned to the enemy-making enterprise of satirizing lawmakers and other pompous personages in newspapers and cartoons—has become worried for his safety. So he employs the Skillens and their associates to watch his back. Despite such protections, Paige is soon garroted and his lodgings set ablaze. The brothers, upset that they could not safeguard their client, commit themselves to identifying and bringing down his murderer. To do that, though, will require their watching over the stubborn and capable woman who’d peddled the deceased’s work; finding the artist who’d helped Paige lampoon his targets; investigating an assortment of prosperous men upset by their treatment at Paige’s hands; figuring out how to assist a prisoner under threat escape from his cell; and fending off their arrogant rivals in crime-solving, the Bow Street Runners. To bring this case to its conclusion, the siblings will also rush away to Paris, where Paul fears his actress inamorata may be in danger from a lecherous villain. Marston (aka Keith Miles), author of the Nicholas Bracewell mysteries and the Railway Detective series, in addition to last year’s debut for Peter and Paul Skillen, in Shadow of the Hangman, offers a sharp wit, prodigious plotting skills, and a manifest appreciation for historical atmospherics in his novels. Such delightful storytelling!

Skip back one year, to 1815, and you have the time period in which the events in Lloyd Shepherd’s The Detective and the Devil (Simon & Schuster UK) take place. Constable Charles Horton from London’s Thames River Police Office is summoned to the city’s East End to probe the gruesome slaying of a family, headed by a man who clerked for Britain’s East India Company. Horton’s persistent inquiries raise the hackles of that company, which is powerful enough and far-reaching enough in its political influence to shut down any threats to its reputation. They also bring the policeman into contact with the early 19th-century world of pseudo-science and the supernatural. Might the present homicides be connected to the looting of an alchemist’s library, as well as to the peculiar deaths of East India Company employees handling business with the tropical island of Saint Helena? The search for answers will send Horton and his wife, Abigail, off to the South Pacific in pursuit of a potentially demonic killer. Shepherd, who first made his name with the historical thriller The English Monster: or, The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass (2012)—in which Charles Horton was introduced—delivers in this new novel (his fourth) a captivating blend of superstition and commercial subterfuge, enriched further by references to French former emperor Napoléon Bonaparte and the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

On Interbellum Black Crime Yarns

Too-infrequent Rap Sheet contributor Gary Phillips has a terrific new article in the Los Angeles Review of Books about black crime fiction of the 1920s and ’30s. He mentions not only several novels penned during that period (such as Dr. Rudolph Fisher’s The Conjure-Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem), but also more recent works of detective fiction set between World Wars I and II (including Robert Skinner’s Wesley Farrell mysteries). Phillips’ piece is definitely worth an examination. Be warned, though: it may well inspire you to add some of the books referenced to your reading pile.

Execute Plan B!

I will let you in on a little secret about my latest Kirkus Reviews column, which was posted earlier this morning.

I’d originally planned to devote that piece’s full length to critiquing a single new novel. However, I wound up not really enjoying the book I had chosen. This happens every now and then when you’re penning a regular books column; you have absolutely no guarantee, when launching into a novel, that it will be satisfying enough or even sufficiently interesting to write about—yet you’re still scheduled to write something. In this case, I decided that the work in question was worth commenting on ... but I couldn’t address it alone. I needed to package it along with my thoughts on a couple of other recent releases I’d found more rewarding.

So click right here to read about three fresh additions to the crime/mystery/thriller genre: Murder Never Knocks, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins; The Other Widow, by Susan Crawford; and The Sign of Fear, by Robert Ryan. I bet you’ll be able to guess which one of that trio I had initially thought to appraise on its own.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Fear Makers,” by Darwin L. Teilhet

(Editor’s note: This is the 136th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
An overwhelming sense of dislocation and uncertainty permeates Darwin Teilhet’s World War II thriller, The Fear Makers. Published originally in 1945 as the war wound to an end, The Fear Makers is a slim yet farsighted masterpiece describing the incipient misuses of public opinion manipulation long before Vance Packard identified them in The Hidden Persuaders. With “the big lie” of Nazi propaganda in the background, Teilhet’s chilling scenario brings the pernicious tools of mass intimidation and persuasion to the American home front, where plans for jockeying a political candidate into office using returning GIs as a power base against labor unions and Jews is well underway. Celebrated American war hero Captain Allan Eaton, suffering from traumatic head injuries, is one of those GIs.

This book kicks off with a touch of Hitchcockian duplicity, mistaken identity, and treachery as Eaton attempts to rebuild a life he’s not even sure happened. Eaton is on his way from a Boston veteran’s hospital to Washington, D.C., to sell his interest in his respected polling firm. A fellow passenger on the train, a stranger named Brown, remarks to Eaton that his business partner, Clark Baker, has been killed under dark and unsettling circumstances. Demonstrating friendship and empathy in a city where the housing supply is known to be tight, Brown gives Eaton an address where he has friends who’ll put him up. For a while, Eaton’s life is no longer under his control.

Eaton thinks he still owns half of his polling company, but is soon informed by the new owner, a wheedling and ham-handed former office manager named Megassum, that he’d actually sold his interest to Baker before leaving for the war. Eaton doesn’t remember signing a contract, but he’s hired on by the firm as a figurehead of probity. Megassum also wants the trusted Eaton to be “in on” the latest project, promoting an anti-labor candidate who “deserves the soldier vote.” When Eaton is quick to see that Megassum employs specious polling techniques, it should come as no surprise that Megassum wants to keep tabs on him. Barney Bond, the gifted statistician who served in Eaton’s job during his absence, takes a keen interest in Eaton as well.

An intelligent, unscrupulous, and self-described “spastic” who seems to fawn over Eaton’s skill and reputation, Barney’s attempts to forge a bond of empathy with Eaton, including using their disabilities as common ground, are shameless. Bond is a repugnant and diabolical opportunist, and on the surface comes off as a Strangelovian mastermind whose hobby is devising a “semantic calculating machine.” It doesn’t take long for his sad, simple motivation to gurgle forth in the confidence and trust he believes he shares with Eaton.
“We get money,” said Barney. “Lots of money. A million dollars.” His eyes lighted. “Girls.” He wiped his lips.
Bond is skeptical of the “facts” surrounding Baker’s death by auto, and tells Eaton he needs to investigate the rumors that Megassum might have been involved. Eventually, the conniving Bond suggests that Eaton might learn the truth from Megassum if he uses a gun.

Not inculpable himself, Eaton is an infamous but repentant pioneer of whisper campaigns—rumor-spreading techniques used in the firm’s early days. Horrified to learn that his Master’s thesis on the subject (which he’d rather forget) is being used as a textbook, Eaton realizes in short order that Clark Baker Associates has changed beyond his worst fears. Now an intimidation and falsification factory, its tentacles seem to stretch everywhere: Phony letter-writing campaigns and polls employing tendentious questions are used to produce predetermined answers; recruits are trained to infiltrate civic groups and manipulate media to sway public opinion; and smear tactics slander African Americans, Jews, and “slackers” who didn’t serve in the war, influencing GIs overseas as well as their waiting families. “It was like starting a fire ten years ago and thinking it had been put out for good and coming back finding it burning ten times greater,” thinks Eaton, who feels the tug of Megassum’s reach and must act with caution.

(Left) Author Darwin Teilhet (photographed by Earl C. Berger)

Any complaints by Megassum to the Veterans Administration concerning Eaton’s mental state can result in Eaton being committed, and Eaton knows it. For a time, at least, that’s how Megassum keeps Eaton from becoming too curious. He’ s caught between freedom and remaining Megassum’s stooge—or exposing Megassum’s vile agenda and being readmitted to a hospital, which Eaton dreads.

When he arrives at the home of Brown’s friends, Eaton finds he is not expected. The house turns out to be occupied by European Jews who’ve fled Europe, and none have heard of the mysterious Mr. Brown. One of them, Elizabeth, becomes a love interest for Eaton, and it’s in that residence where he finds a temporary haven that’s homey, comforting … and short-lived. The house next door is occupied by a thuggish family of anti-Semites who vandalize the home of their gentle neighbors. As a member of this small, thrown-together family, Eaton experiences the persecution that his hosts and legions of people before them, all over the world, have endured.

A confrontation with the hate-mongers leads to a conversation, and Eaton discovers he’d in fact come to the wrong house; it was not the immigrants to whom he’d been recommended, but to the angry household of Hal Borland and his common-law wife, Vivien, next door. Vivien is a talented artist and forger with a laugh like “pulsating ice water.” Eaton discovers a briefcase full of letters addressed to GIs overseas and Megassum’s plans thereby become clearer. Together with Elizabeth’s biochemist brother, Eaton attempts to correct the falsified data in those missives, and when Eaton makes off with Megassum’s tainted polling information, guns are pulled and the chase is on.

Coincidence and misadventure abound to propel The Fear Makers’ plot and give the book a deeper level of meaning, as when Eaton and Elizabeth—on the run and afoot—are provided sanctuary by the black jazz musician George Goodspeed, to whom Eaton had given a lift at this story’s beginning. Eaton’s persistent use of military time subtly makes the reader see that Eaton has yet to leave the past and move beyond his circumstances. The occasional awkward sentences in Eaton’s narration give a sense of his unbalance, prompting the reader to reason that Eaton has not made a full recovery, which adds tension and ambiguity to the events occurring here.

“The post-war era will be ripe for a properly developed plan of psychological attack in all fields of enterprise, based on the polling operations as a cover for action,” says Barney Bond. If only this strategy were used to sell just Corn Flakes. The world is complicated, and sifting through the mass media and their profusion of viewpoints is tricky. There is nothing to really fear but the fear makers themselves; a clear and discerning mind is all that’s needed to differentiate between good and evil, no matter how they’re packaged.

Hailing Canadian Offenses

The Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) has announced the nominees for its 2016 Arthur Ellis Awards in eight categories, as follows.

Best Novel:
Hungry Ghosts, by Peggy Blair (Simon & Schuster)
The Storm Murders, by John Farrow (Minotaur)
A Killing in Zion, by Andrew Hunt (Minotaur)
Open Season, by Peter Kirby (Linda Leith)
The Night Bell, by Inger Ash Wolfe (McClelland & Stewart)

Best First Novel:
Hard Drive, by J. Mark Collins (iUniverse)
What Kills Good Men, by David Hood (Vagrant Press)
The Unquiet Dead, by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur)
Encore, by Alexis Koetting (Five Star)
Old Bones, by Brian R. Lindsay (Volumes)

Best Novella:
Black Canyon, by Jeremy Bates (Dark Hearts)
Deadly Season, by Alison Bruce (Imajin)
Glow Glass, by M.H. Callway (Carrick)
The Night Thief, by Barbara Fradkin (Orca)
Beethoven’s Tenth, by Brian Harvey (Orca)

Best Short Story:
“With One Shoe,” by Karen Abrahamson (from The Playground of Lost Toys, edited by Colleen Anderson and Ursula Pflug; Exile Press)
“The Siege,” by Hilary Davidson (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], December 2015)
“The Water Was Rising,” by Sharon Hunt (EQMM, August 2015)
“The Avocado Kid,” by Scott Mackay (EQMM, June 2015)
“Movable Type,” by S.G. Wong (from AB Negative: An Alberta Crime Anthology, edited by Axel Howerton; Coffin Hop Press)

Best Book in French:
L’Affaire Myosotis, by Luc Chartrand (Québec Amérique)
L’affaire Céline, by Jean-Louis Fleury (Éditions Alire)
La bataille de Pavie, by André Jacques (Druide)
Le mauvais côté des choses, by Jean Lemieux (Québec Amérique)
L’affaire Mélodie Cormier, by Guillaume Morrissette
(Guy Saint-Jean éditeur)

Best Juvenile/YA Book:
Diego’s Crossing, by Robert Hough (Annick Press)
Set You Free, by Jeff Ross (Orca)
The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands (Aladdin)
The Dogs, by Allan Stratton (Scholastic)
Trouble Is a Friend of Mine, by Stephanie Tromley (Kathy Dawson)

Best Non-fiction Book:
Human on the Inside: Unlocking the Truth about Canada’s Prisons, by Gary Garrison (University of Regina Press)
Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation, by Dean Jobb (HarperCollins)
The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John McLoughlin Jr., by Debra Komar (Goose Lane)
Cold War, by Jerry Langton (Harper Collins)
Mr. Big: The Investigation into the Deaths of Karen and Krista Hart, by Colleen Lewis and Jennifer Hicks (Flanker Press)

The Dundurn Unhanged Arthur for Best Unpublished
First Crime Novel:

When the Flood Falls, by Jayne Barnard
Knight Blind, by Alice Bienia
Brave Girls, by Pam Isfeld
Better the Devil You Know, by J.T. Siemens
Give Out Creek, by J.G. Toews

This year’s winners are scheduled to be announced on May 26.

In addition, the CWC has named Eric Wright as its 2016 Grand Master. “If there ever was a crime writer whom the Canadian crime-writing community needs to thank it is Eric Wright,” reads a press release. “He wrote 18 crime novels, in four different series, as well as novels, a novella, and a memoir. Eric’s first novel, The Night the Gods Smiled (1983), won the first Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel, the John Creasey Award from the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), and the City of Toronto Book Award. The Kidnapping of Rosie Dawn (2000) won an Arthur and was nominated for an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America (MWA). His writing career spanned over 40 years and his contribution to Canadian crime writing was, without question, immense. This was recognized in 1998 when Eric received the Derrick Murdoch Award for lifetime contribution to Canadian crime writing. Eric Wright passed away in October, 2015, shortly after being notified that he had been selected for the Grand Master Award.”

(Hat tip to Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Scandi Stars Shine

Half a dozen books and authors are in the running for the 2016 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, according to this announcement in Shotsmag Confidential. They are:

The Drowned Boy, by Karin Fossum, translated by Kari Dickson (Harvill Secker; Norway)
The Defenceless, by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated by David Hackston (Orenda; Finland)
The Caveman, by Jorn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway)
The Girl in the Spider's Web, by David Lagercrantz,
translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press; Sweden)
Satellite People, by Hans Olav Lahlum,
translated by Kari Dickson (Mantle; Norway)
Dark As My Heart, by Antti Tuomainen,
translated by Lola Rogers (Harvill Secker; Finland)

The Petrona Award takes its name from a long-running blog written by Maxine Clarke, a British “champion of Scandinavian crime fiction,” who died in December 2012. This year’s winner will be declared during a dinner held on May 21 during CrimeFest in Bristol, England.

READ MORE:The Petrona Award Shortlist 2016,” by Norman Price (Crime Scraps Review).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Highly Peculier Assortment

Notable new crime-fiction authors join a clutch of old hands in the competition for this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. The longlist of rivals, posted today in Shotsmag Confidential, looks like this:

Time of Death, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)
Rain Dogs, by Adrian McKinty (Serpent’s Tail)
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (Sphere)
Black-Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin (Michael Joseph)
Disclaimer, by Renée Knight (Black Swan)
I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh (Sphere)
The Moth Catcher, by Ann Cleeves (Pan)
Tell No Tales, by Eva Dolan (Harvill Secker)
The Ghost Fields, by Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
The Missing and the Dead, by Stuart MacBride (HarperCollins)
Every Night I Dream of Hell, by Malcolm Mackay (Mantle)
Splinter the Silence, by Val McDermid (Little, Brown)
The Glorious Heresies, by Lisa McInerney (John Murray)
The Nightmare Place, by Steve Mosby (Orion)
The Final Silence, by Stuart Neville (Harvill Secker)
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware (Harvill Secker)
Death Is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh (John Murray)
Stasi Child, by David Young (Twenty7)

As Shotsmag explains, these 18 titles were “selected by an academy of crime-writing authors, agents, editors, reviewers, members of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Programming Committee, and representatives from T&R Theakston Ltd. and [bookseller] W.H. Smith.” A shortlist of just half a dozen titles will be announced on May 31. A public online vote, conducted between July 1 and 15, will help determine this contest’s ultimate winner. The name of that book and author will be declared on July 21 during opening-night festivities at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 21-24 in Harrogate, England).

Bullet Points: Out and About Edition

• Last week brought an announcement, by the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, of the nominees for its 2016 Scribe Awards. As the IAMTW explains, these annual commendations honor “licensed works that tie in with other media such as television, movies, gaming, or comic books.” I won’t try to list all of the contenders here, since many of them are drawn from the science fiction or fantasy categories, but the four rivals seeking the Best Original Novel—General prize are crime-fiction related:

Elementary: The Ghost Line, by Adam Christopher (Titan)
Kill Me, Darling, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Titan)
Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: Desert Falcons, by Michael A. Black (Gold Eagle)
24: Rogue, by David Mack (Forge)

In addition, “Fallout,” by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (The Strand Magazine, November 2014-February 2015), is in the running for Best Short Story. Again, you’ll find all of the nominees here.

• Meanwhile, Collins, Lee Goldberg, Alan Dean Foster, and Elizabeth Hand were interviewed on the subject of media tie-ins for On the Media, a syndicated radio show from New York’s WNYC.

• Speaking of prizes … Louisianan B.J. Bourg has won the 2016 EPIC E-book Award in the category of Mystery for his novel James 516. (In case you’re wondering, EPIC stands for Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition.) Also nominated for that prize were Murder on Edisto, by C. Hope Clark; Secrets, Lies, and Homicide, by Patricia Dusenbury; Shadows on Iron Mountain, by Chuck Walsh; and The Old Inn at Punta de Sangre, by Theresa Donovan Brown. The complete rundown of finalists this year’s numerous categories can be found here.

• Criminal Element is running a series of posts focusing on this year’s nominees for the Edgar Awards (to be given out on April 28.) Most recently, Kristin Centorcelli looked at Life or Death, by Michael Robotham, and Susanna Calkins talked with her old friend and fellow author, Duane Swierczynski, about Canary. Links to all of these posts are here, and a full list of the 2016 Edgar rivals is here.

• And Ellen Hart’s Grave Soul (Minotaur) has won this year’s Minnesota Book Award for Genre Fiction. Also vying for that honor were The Devereaux Decision, by Steve McEllistrem (Calumet Editions); He’s Either Dead or in St. Paul, by D.B. Moon (Three Waters); and Season of Fear, by Brian Freeman (Quercus).

You can probably forget about a Sopranos prequel.

• However, we can finally look forward to new entries in Caleb Carr’s popular series of historical mysteries featuring psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, first introduced in The Alienist (1994) and subsequently starring in The Angel of Darkness (1997). As Entertainment Weekly explains, “The first of the two books … is set 20 years after The Angel of Darkness, in 1915 New York City, and is ‘centered on nativist violence and terrorism during America’s involvement in World War I’ …The second book will be called The Strange Case of Miss Sarah X, and will be a prequel to the Alienistseries. In this novel, the publisher explains, ‘A youthful Kreizler, after finishing his psychology training at Harvard, falls under the spell of William James, has his first run-in with [Theodore] Roosevelt, and delves into the secret life of Sara Howard, heroine of the first books.’”

In a short “By the Book” interview for The New York Times Book Review, Britain’s Philip Kerr is asked, “Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?” His answer:
Heroes are always too heroic to be real. Or wholly sympathetic. James Bond is nicely flawed. Sadistic. Sexist. Bitter. I like that. I hate Sherlock Holmes in all his incarnations, written and especially on screen. I like Nick Charles because he drinks gimlets a lot, as I do. I am very fond of George Smiley. My favorite antihero used to be Highsmith’s Ripley. But all that now seems very old hat. I always had a soft spot for Shere Khan in “The Jungle Book.” O’Brien in “1984.” Captain Ahab, of course. Alec d’Urberville—naturally. Mr. Hyde in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Edmund in “King Lear”—we have much in common. Mr. Kurtz. Mrs. Danvers—can’t help liking her. And dear, dear Iago.
• From The Spy Command comes news that Peter Janson-Smith has died at age 93. The blog reminds us that Janson-Smith was “Ian Fleming’s literary agent and a behind-the-scenes figure in the success of the literary James Bond … [He] helped raise the visibility of Fleming’s original novels and short stories during the author’s lifetime. After Fleming’s death, eventually he became the chairman of Glidrose, now known as Ian Fleming Publications. In that capacity, Janson-Smith helped launch the 007 continuation stories penned by John Gardner and Raymond Benson that ran from the early 1980s into the early 2000s.” Benson himself, in a Facebook posting, calls Janson-Smith “a mentor, a teacher, a friend, and someone I called my ‘English dad.’ Peter had a long, distinguished career as a literary agent in England. He was Ian Fleming’s agent as well as Eric Ambler’s and [the agent for] many other great authors. He sold Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange. He was the trustee for Winnie the Pooh. So many accomplishments, too many to name here.” More here.

• Library of America’s latest hardcover release, Ross Macdonald: Three Novels of the Early 1960s, edited by Tom Nolan, isn’t due out until later this week, but it has already received a rave from The Washington Post’s Dennis Drabble.

• If you happen to be in London on Thursday, April 28—Ian Fleming’s birthday (he was born in 1908)—consider participating in a special celebration set to include both a walking tour and guest appearances by people involved behind the scenes with the James Bond films.

The role of food in the Bond and Philip Marlowe novels.

• Organizers of this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 21-24 in Harrogate, England) have chosen P.D. James’ 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, as the convention’s Big Read for 2016. “The Big Read initiative,” explains Shotsmag Confidential, “aims to encourage as many people as possible to celebrate great crime writing by reading the same novel at the same time. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman introduces Cordelia Gray, the first modern female detective in crime fiction.” More information on this subject can be found here.

• Batman teams up with The Avengers? Count on it!

Here’s a private-detective movie from way back in 1973 that I have never heard of, much less watched. Unfortunately, critic Peter Hanson labels it “boring, episodic, and stupid, ideal only for the most lascivious of viewers.” I guess that counts me out …

• As President Obama’s time in the White House nears its end, there are a whole lot of people becoming nostalgic for his steady and thoughtful leadership—perhaps because some of the folks hoping to fill his shoes appear so unsuitable, even dangerous. GQ magazine editor Jim Nelson writes: “With Obama, each thoughtful step of the way, from his soaring acceptance speech (‘The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep …’) to his epic speeches on race and religion, his responses to the shootings in Tucson and Newtown, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the opening of Cuba (‘Todos somos Americanos!’), and countless other momentous occasions, he knew how to speak to our better angels at a time when it was hard to locate any angels.”

• Well, it’s about damn time! Television Obscurities brings word that on July 12, Shout! Factory will release The Defenders: Season 1, a nine-DVD set containing all 32 episodes from the introductory season of The Defenders, the much-lauded legal drama starring E.G. Marshall (later of The Bold Ones) and Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch). The Defenders ultimately earned a four-season run on CBS-TV, as well as multiple awards; yet Television Obscurities says “it was perhaps too topical and controversial to thrive in syndication, and likely hasn’t been aired anywhere since the late 1960s or early 1970s.” The standard retail price for these DVDs will be $44.99.

• The lineup of guest authors scheduled to attend this year’s third annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest (June 10-12 in Key West, Florida) isn’t shabby at all. Included will be Robert K. Tanenbaum, Timothy Hallinan, Sandra Balzo, James O. Born, Heather Graham, Lisa Black, Don Bruns, Michael Haskins, Jake Hinkson, Victoria Landis, and Rick Ollerman. Click here to register.

• Finally, and a bit belatedly, we wish farewell to Gary Shulze, who for more than 14 years—until it was sold in March—operated the Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife, Pat Frovarp. He died on April 6 at age 66. The Star Tribune newspaper recalls that Shulze “had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, and it returned two years ago.” It goes on to quote Twin Cities mystery writer Jesse Chandler as saying, “Gary loved books, he loved Pat, and he loved Once Upon a Crime. His motto was ‘One more book never hurts.’” (Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Life as a Card-Carrying Library User

I wasn’t aware, when I wrote days ago about Con Lehane’s soon-forthcoming novel, Murder at the 42nd Street Library, that April 10-16 was National Library Week here in the United States, an annual celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. Furthermore, today is National Librarian Day!

But since these observances are firmly upon us, let me just give an appreciative shout out to the public library that I have known best and for the longest period of time: the Multnomah County Central Library in Portland, Oregon. Designed by A.E. (Albert Ernest) Doyle and opened in 1913, that grand Georgian-style edifice of brick, limestone, and marble—three stories tall and occupying a full downtown block bounded by Southwest 10th and 11th avenues and Yamhill and Taylor streets—was a regular destination for my brother and me when we were young. Our mother didn’t start driving until I was in college, so when we were children she’d walk us the four miles (mostly downhill) from our home in Portland’s West Hills to that library to check out, return, and otherwise enjoy books in the Children’s Reading Room. Then we would hike those four miles back uphill, our arms loaded with as many volumes as we could carry. Only later did a bookmobile route reach our neighborhood, making such trudges less necessary.

When I was old enough to move into an apartment downtown, it cut my travel time to the library considerably. It also made it possible for me to visit there more frequently, for professional as well as recreational reasons. I could often be spotted flipping through the old card catalogues on the second floor, in search of books or magazine and newspaper resources that were essential to my journalism work. Other times I settled myself comfortably into one of the overstuffed chairs in what I recall was the high-ceilinged first-floor Fiction Room, reading works by Alistair MacLean, Ross Macdonald, or Robert B. Parker. It was also there that I (a notably young reader among much older ones) first consumed—over more than a few sittings—Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (described so wonderfully by one source as “essentially Sherlock Holmes in a monastery—with a sex-scene”).

Although I don’t live in Portland any longer, I still drop by the Central Library there on occasion, when I happen to be in town, to remind myself of the good times I spent in those hallowed, book-filled chambers. The library went through a major renovation in the mid-1990s, so it now has computers everywhere, and the floors and woodwork have been spruced up, and room arrangements have been modified enough that I find myself having to ask sometimes where things are now located. But nothing important has really changed. That place still holds a vital spot in my evolution as a writer. As much as I grew up anywhere, it was among the library’s millions of books.

READ MORE:Where in the World Are You Reading? My Local Library (Part 2),” by SuziQOregon (Whimpulsive); “Remembrance of Libraries Past,” by Julia Buckley (Mysterious Musings).

Friday, April 15, 2016

“Grantchester”: From Text to TV

(Editor’s note: Today we welcome to The Rap Sheet James Runcie, the Cambridge-born filmmaker, visiting professor, and author of The Grantchester Mysteries, a succession of spirited whodunits that have been made into the TV series Grantchester, currently being broadcast as part of PBS-TV’s Sunday Masterpiece lineup. [This second season of six episodes is set to run through May 1. A third season has already been ordered.] Below, Runcie remarks on the odd experience of seeing one’s fiction turned into a small-screen drama.)

Having your novel adapted for television is the Holy Grail for many writers, and I have to confess that when I began to write The Grantchester Mysteries—a series of detective novels featuring a sleuthing vicar set in England in the 1950s, I did try to think as if it was a film. I wrote six stories in each volume (a six-part series is standard in Britain) so that it would be easy for commissioning editors to imagine how the program might work across Sunday nights. I thought about a loveable central character, a period setting (all those lovely old steam trains, cars, and gorgeous frocks), and tried to picture the rural location, imagining each scene, thinking about how the characters might look, what they might be wearing and how they might behave. I even thought about camera angles, perspective, and point of view. This may seem a cynical exercise but I think it helped the writing come alive, and I followed several basic cinematic rules as I went along (for example, always starting a scene as late as you can and finishing as early as you dare). I also knew that the plots had to be as tight as possible and that each story would need a major inciting incident.

But there comes a time when you realize that you cannot write with one eye on a future film or television adaptation alone. You have to remain true to the medium you are working in, and a novel is obviously very different from a screenplay. You can take more time with set-ups, you can describe things in greater detail, and you can explore the ambiguities of motive and psychology in greater depth. Furthermore, you are not constrained by budget. If you want 500 people boating down a river in fancy dress, you can have it. You are free to do whatever you want.

I also think that, as well as adding detail and filling things in during the writing of a novel, you have to leave things out, as well. Not everything has to be explained. The writer needs to create space for the reader’s imagination; let her or him picture the scene themselves, in their own way. You have to give them room to be as creative as yourself, to make the story their own.

But what happens, after you’ve published Volumes I and II, when the glorious moment occurs and your work is developed for television while you are still writing the books? Does the adaptation start to influence the fiction? Do you hear the actors’ voices as you write the dialogue? Do you begin to write with television even more in mind?

An early introduction to the stars and setting of Grantchester.

With Grantchester (currently showing on PBS), this has been a complex issue. Key decisions have been made by casting and costume people. Some characters are cut out altogether, some have their names changed, and others are wildly different to how I imagined them to be. James Norton, the actor who plays Canon Sidney Chambers, is far more good-looking than he is in the novel; Robson Green, who plays Inspector Geordie Keating, is too fit and finely toned. The important thing is not to panic, especially when you meet the actress playing one of your heroines, Amanda Kendall, a tall, willowy, English rose, and find that she is being played by a small and feisty, no-nonsense Glaswegian (Morven Christie). This is where the acting comes in—and all of this can be a delightful surprise. The actors start to open up new possibilities.

Here’s an example. There is a shy clergyman in the novel called Leonard. He is Sidney’s assistant and he is gay, but he hasn’t come out because in England, in 1955, homosexuality was illegal. This extraordinarily compromising and difficult fact has been played with such tenderness by Al Weaver, that I have written Leonard back into the novels after previously writing him out, simply because I knew viewers want more of him, and readers do, too.

Seeing a novel on screen arouses all sorts of emotions because it is recognizably your idea but yet, at the same time, it has been turned into something new and radically different—involving new characters and plot lines that you never imagined. You just have to trust that the spirit and the atmosphere will be preserved; that these stories intended as entertaining moral fables, still contain philosophical punch and thoughtful enjoyment.

I’m glad I thought about them filmically, and it’s good to have it both ways now, so I can tell people who don’t like the books to watch the TV series; and people who don’t like the TV series can always read the books, instead. It’s only when they don’t like both that I have to ask them to go somewhere altogether different…

READ MORE:James Runcie: Writing Grantchester” (Mystery Fanfare).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Mirthful Mayhem

Today brings the announcement of the five finalists for this year’s Bloody Words Light Mystery Award (aka the Bony Blithe Award), “an annual Canadian award that celebrates traditional, feel-good mysteries.” And the contenders are …

The Marsh Madness, by Victoria Abbott (Berkley Prime Crime)
Untimely Death, by Elizabeth J. Duncan (Crooked Lane)
Booked for Trouble, by Eva Gates (NAL)
White Colander Crime, by Victoria Hamilton (Berkley Prime Crime)
Encore, by Alexis Koetting (Five Star)

The 2016 Bony Blithe Award will be presented during a gala affair to be held on Friday, May 27, at the High Park Club in Toronto. Congratulations to all of the nominees!

Missed It By That Much …


As it turns out, yesterday—not today—marked the birthday of Manhattan-born comic-actor Don Adams, who is still best known for his role as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, in the 1965-1970 NBC-TV situation comedy/spy series Get Smart, and who died in 2005 at age 82. In honor of this occasion, I am offering here a clip from a mid-1960s episode of The Dean Martin Show, in which the host quizzes Adams—in character—about the apparently hilarious challenges involved in being a top American secret agent. Enjoy!

(Hat tip to The Spy Command.)

Wild, Indeed

As The Spy Command blog opines, tomorrow—April 15—will bring “the 50th anniversary of what may be the best episode of The Wild Wild West [1965-1969], ‘The Night of the Murderous Spring.’ If not the series’ best outing, it’s in the conversation.
It was the next-to-last episode [the 27th] of West’s first season and the fourth to feature Michael Dunn as Dr. [Miguelito] Loveless.

The episode, written by John Kneubuhl (creator of Dr. Loveless) and directed by Richard Donner, removed all of the limits from the villain’s initial encounters with U.S. Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin).

Loveless is determined to kill humanity to restore Earth’s ecological balance. The villain has come up with a chemical, when mixed with water, will spur men to hallucinate and go into a murderous rage.
Read more here.

For a while, that whole installment was available on YouTube. But as so often happens, someone complained about a copyright infraction, so the video is now down. Too bad. “The Night of the Murderous Spring” is a weird episode (as was often true of that CBS-TV series combining the spy, Western, and fantasy genres), but it’s well worth watching if you can get your hands on a DVD collection of the first season.

* * *

A bit of trivia, courtesy of The Wild Wild West Web site: “The lake assigned to the evil duty of releasing the ducks that would carry Loveless’ drug across the land is actually the man-made lake used as the lagoon in Gilligan’s Island, since demolished and turned into a studio parking lot.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Slayings Among the Stacks

The entrance to New York City’s 42nd Street research library, also known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

During my first journey to New York City, not too long after I’d graduated from college, all I wanted to do was visit buildings. My father was an architect, who—though we lived way out in the hinterlands of Portland, Oregon—had for years been showing me magazine articles and books about Manhattan’s thrusting skyline, and how modern designers went about inserting slender glass-and-steel edifices amongst its older, broad-shouldered stone structures. So I was well prepared for a self-guided tour of the burg. I don’t remember in what order I saw them, but my wide-eyed walk through Manhattan (with too-infrequent stops at sidewalk eateries and bookshops) carried me to the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Woolworth Building, Daniel Burnham’s Flatiron Building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, and, on the edge of Central Park, the luxurious Plaza Hotel.

Somewhere early in that hike, I also made sure to stop by the New York Public Library main branch at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.

A magnificent Beaux-Arts structure, built on the site of the old Croton Reservoir, designed by the local firm of John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, and opened in 1911, that institution has become a beloved landmark, as well as a familiar location for movie shooting. (I think the first time I became aware of its cinematic potential was in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, during which an astronaut, played by James Franciscus, stumbles—at some time “in the distant future”—upon the ruined, buried, and sadly forgotten research library.) I recall standing in front of that marble mammoth on a warm summer day and just watching people as they climbed its broad entry staircase, on adjacent sides of which recline giant stone lions, nicknamed “Patience” and “Fortitude” by New York’s Depression-era mayor, Fiorello La Guardia. Having absorbed all I could from that vantage point, and with a smile threatening to plant itself permanently on my face, I finally mounted the stairs myself, touched each lion for good luck, and then roamed the building’s impressive interior for at least an hour. Ever since then, whenever my travels take me to Manhattan, I make sure to pay a call on that beautiful place of learning.

So it was probably inevitable that I should enjoy Con Lehane’s brand-new mystery novel, Murder at the 42nd Street Library (Minotaur), much of which takes place in and around that very landmark. But I’ve also read and enjoyed his previous three mysteries, all starring bartender-turned-amateur sleuth Brian McNulty: Beware the Solitary Drinker (2002), What Goes Around Comes Around (2005), and Death at the Old Hotel (2007). I knew, going in, that Lehane loves complicated plots, quirky characters with troubled back-stories, spirited dialogue, and a good deal of incidental humor in his storytelling. Murder at the 42nd Street Library offers all of those, plus a bookstacks-to-bowels view of what it’s like to work in a modern bibliotheca.

(Left) Author Con Lehane

After finishing Murder at the 42nd Street Library, I was hoping to interview him about this debut work in his new series and how it shows his evolution as a fiction writer. Fortunately, he accepted my invitation. The first—and shorter—part of our exchange was posted earlier today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Part II is embedded below.

For those of you who aren’t already familiar with Con (formerly Cornelius) Lehane, let me just note that he was reared in Connecticut and has been, at various points in his life, a bartender, union organizer, labor journalist, college professor. He attended Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and later earned an Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing from New York’s Columbia University. Currently a resident of Kensington, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., he shares his hard-won knowledge of fiction writing and mystery writing with students at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

In addition to the topics he covered in Part I of my interview with him, I asked Lehane about his life-changing experiences with the labor and civil-rights movements, his move into journalism, his years as the adviser to a student newspaper, his debt to novelists Nelson Algren and Ross Macdonald, the ups and downs of his mystery-writing career, and how he hopes to develop his new series, built around librarian Raymond Ambler. Read on to learn about those subjects and more.

J. Kingston Pierce: “Cornelius” isn’t the most common of first names. Is there a story behind that? Did your parents name you after the 19th-century Irish Socialist leader?

Con Lehane: I’m named after my paternal grandfather. My sister is named after our maternal grandmother. My middle name, William, is my maternal grandfather’s first name. My sister’s middle name is our paternal grandmother’s name. This is an Irish way of naming children. I don’t know what happens after the first two kids. Our family didn’t get that far. Actually, my son Paddy is named after my father. My son Jimmy is named after his mother’s father. Finally, Cornelius is not such an uncommon Irish name. In the west of Cork and the East of Kerry, the name Cornelius Lehane is not uncommon.

JKP: After you published your first novel, Beware the Solitary Drinker, much was made of your having a bartending background. But how extensive is that background, really? For how many years did you work among the tippling crowd, and where?

CL: I could probably name all the bars I worked in, but it would take some effort. There were 24 of them. It might really be 23 bars, because I was fired in a strike at Hartford Jai-Lai many years ago before I ever got to step behind the bar. My first bartending job was when I was still in college in Milwaukee and I was 21. My last bartending job was during the summer after my oldest son was born. That was almost 30 years ago.

JKP: You grew up around Fairfield County, Connecticut, and your father was a gardener on private estates, if I understand your history correctly. Your father often took you out to help him in the gardens, and you developed an affinity with other workers. Can we trace your interest in labor issues to those childhood experiences?

CL: Yes, though not directly. Certainly, my identification with folks who make their living by the sweat of their brow was because those are the folks I grew up among. My identification with the labor movement as the voice of those folks (even those who don’t believe that unions are the best representatives of working people, of whom my father was one) came later, more or less through my involvement in the civil-rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War movement.

JKP: What was the extent of your involvement in labor organizing? What was it about such work you found so appealing? And for how many years did you work in labor-organizing positions?

CL: My first union activity was picketing supermarkets in support of the United Farm Workers’ efforts to organize migrant farm workers. It was the UFW’s first national effort, the [1965-1970] Delano Grape Boycott, a kind of amalgam of civil rights and labor issues, and a great lesson in unifying workers. The strike began when Filipino-American grape workers walked off the job. It wasn’t a strike of Mexican and other Latin American workers until the National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez—a mostly Latino union—joined the strike later. The boycott went on for five years. I wasn’t much involved except picketing grocery stores with Boycott Grapes signs.

My first job in the labor movement was with what was then called the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. At the time, the Amalgamated represented clothing workers who made men’s clothes and the International Ladies Garment Workers represented workers who made women’s clothes. Since then, because of dwindling membership, those two unions merged, that merger followed by other mergers and splits, so the old Amalgamated later became part of the second union I worked for, what was then called the Hotel and Restaurant Workers and Bartenders International Union. The Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union was sort of my home union, because I was a bartender and a member, as well as a staff person. After I was let go (fired) from the staff, I kept on organizing as a member of a bartenders local in Massachusetts. More union jobs followed, including organizing doctors and, later, circus workers. Later still, after I thought I’d finished with organizing and begun teaching, I was elected president of my community college union local.

Unless you’ve been involved in a union organizing campaign, you wouldn’t know the courage and nobility of the folks who put their economic well-being—their jobs—on the line to stand up against forces with a lot more power than they have. There was a documentary film of one of the farm workers strikes some time back. I don’t remember the title. In one scene, the camera panned a picket line of workers standing alongside a road, maybe blocking trucks carrying struck goods, maybe buses carrying strikebreakers. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the expression on the face of one of the men standing wearing a picket sign. It was an expression of abject terror, the expression on the face of someone who thinks he might die in the next few minutes. The man was terrified, but he was there, standing up, as scared as he was. That’s why I did it. That’s what I got out of it: standing up against exploitation with folks like him. I could go on for a couple of days about my time in the labor movement; it’s been decades now, and I’ve never thought I was wrong about it.

JKP: Were you employed as a labor journalist at the same time as you were organizing, or did that period of your career come before or after?

CL: I worked as a labor journalist for the National Education Association. This was my last job in the labor movement, from which I retired. My background was as a college teacher, so I wrote and edited NEA’s higher-education publications. But I also did work on organizing campaigns on college campuses while at NEA.

JKP: So where does being a college professor fit into your résumé? Was that a later-career move? Were you teaching English, journalism, or something else? And where were you teaching?

CL: I hold a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction writing, my credential for college teaching. This was something of a planned move, and strangely, it’s all connected. I was always back and forth between my union work and bartending, making my living as a bartender so I could get time to write when I wasn’t working for unions. It was much harder to find time to write when doing union work. When I “got done” with my job with the Amalgamated, I went to work at the University of Massachusetts [UMass] in Amherst as a janitor, so I could take courses in the MFA program with Harvey Swados, who’d recently joined the faculty. He was probably the last of the “proletarian” writers. One of his books, On the Line [1957], was based on his time working in an auto plant. He was really encouraging to me, despite the fact I was very much an amateurish writer. He died [in 1972] just after I was accepted into the MFA program. I was sort of lost without him and floundered around a bit, finally dropping out of the program, bartending and then going to work for the bartender’s union.

I finally got an MFA a few years later, not from UMass but from Columbia, having moved from Massachusetts to New York to work for a union. My plan was to trade in my union work and bartending, which I’d done one or the other of for more than a decade, for teaching at a college, which would provide me more time to write. My first teaching jobs were as an adjunct composition teacher in the CUNY [City University of New York] system. Not so coincidentally, one of my positions there was in the City College Workers Education Center. After a couple of years of that, I was hired by Rockland Community College as a full-time tenure-track assistant professor, to teach English and act as adviser to the college newspaper. God knows why they hired me. But it was great. I worked there for almost 10 years, leaving as an associate professor to move to Washington, D.C., to work in labor education with SEIU [the Service Employees International Union] and later to become an editor at NEA.

JKP: Being someone who first saw the possibilities of his own writing career while working for a college paper, I’m interested in your mention of having been the adviser to the staff of such a publication. What were your best and worst experiences in the adviser’s role?

CL: I was the adviser to Outlook, the student newspaper at Rockland Community College in Suffern, New York … The student editorial crew I inherited when I arrived at Rockland were conservative, Young Americans for Freedom types. They didn’t trust me at first because I was always up front about my own political views. I got along with them—and all of the subsequent editors—because I told them right from the start that the paper was theirs. They made the decisions. I was the adviser. I couldn’t and wouldn’t make decisions for them. They didn’t believe me. But I convinced them, the college administration, and the faculty that the final decision on anything editorial would always belong to the student editors.

As you might imagine, this ruffled a lot of feathers. I persuaded the administration to adopt this hands-off policy by pointing out that if I made decisions, the college would be liable for what the students wrote. If it was clear that the decisions were always made by the students, the college wouldn’t be liable. I would argue with the students. They knew what I thought about whatever issue they were dealing with. They also knew they didn’t have to agree with me. I wouldn’t have the final word. They got things wrong. They embarrassed faculty members and the administration more than once. They took editorial positions that made me cringe. In all of that, they grew a lot.

One year, I had this group of guys, disciples of Howard Stern. Every day, I went into the newspaper office; Howard Stern was blaring out of the radio. I couldn’t stand him—still can’t. For the entire year, no women entered the newspaper office, or if a young woman might happen in, she’d leave quickly and never come back. The editors moaned and groaned that there were no women. This was before there was as much consciousness about hostile work environments. I knew. I told them to turn off Howard Stern, stop with all the women-as-objects jokes. They weren’t bad guys. They were boorish and afraid of women, so they scared them off in turn.

After that, for a number of years, women were editors and the place was more welcoming. Yet, it never became welcoming to black students. The editors would have welcomed black students. [But] hey didn’t know how to create a setting, a newsroom, where black kids felt welcome and comfortable. I didn’t either. I had one black kid as an editor, Michael Grant. He was from Jamaica and went back to Jamaica where he’s a writer now.

JKP: At what point in your life did you determine that composing novels was the perfect job for you?

CL: My becoming a novel writer, a story writer, derives from my reading, by luck and happenstance, The Man with the Golden Arm [1949], by Nelson Algren, near the end of my time in college. When I read the first few pages of that book, I knew for the first time that I could become a writer, a novelist. I won’t describe the story (it’s not the movie) or my epiphany (I’d never read a novel that was so much about things I knew: the setting, the characters, and the sensibility, which was sympathy for the kind of folks a lot of people don’t feel much sympathy for), because it would take too long. Basically, I had this epiphany that I could become a writer—that I should become a writer—at the same time in my life that I discovered this political battle against injustice that manifested itself in the civil-rights movement, the anti-war movement, a bunch of anti-poverty community organizing that was going on at the time, and the labor movement. So, for me, the two—what then we called “the movement” and my writing—were intertwined, inseparable.

JKP: Did you try writing and selling other novels before you found a publisher for Beware the Solitary Drinker?

CL: When I was at the UMass MFA program, I began a novel that took place against the backdrop of the radical political movement of the ’60s and early ’70s that I’d been part of. I worked on that off and on for a number of years. It took a long time to write and a longer time to go through many revisions. It was my thesis for my MFA at Columbia, and I tried to get it published for a few years after that, publishing stories here and there in the meanwhile. In one attempt to get it published, I attended a conference on the first novel in Woodstock, New York, not far from where I lived at the time. One of the speakers, Ruth Cavin (with whom, years later, I closed down a couple of Bouchercon bars) said, among other things, that it was easier to get a first mystery novel published than a more traditional sort of novel. I’d begun reading mystery novels a few years before that and had the same sort of epiphany reading Hammett and Raymond Chandler and, later, Ross Macdonald that I had upon reading Nelson Algren, a kind of affinity for the settings, the characters, the voice, and especially with Macdonald, the sensibility (incidentally, Ross Macdonald was an admirer of Nelson Algren). In one of Macdonald’s books, Lew Archer says something like, “As the wise man from Chicago once said, ‘Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called Mom’s, and never, ever sleep with anyone who has more troubles than you do’”—a famous quote from Algren. That’s when I began Beware the Solitary Drinker, thinking it would be easier to get a mystery published.

JKP: When you created New York City bartender Brian McNulty, did you imagine that he’d be able to carry a series of novels, rather than just one? Or had you planned Solitary Drinker as a one-off, with completely different novels to follow?

CL: At first, coming out of the conference I mentioned above, thinking about what Ruth Cavin said about it being easier to get a first mystery published, I thought I’d write one mystery novel to get myself published as a novelist and then go on to being whatever kind of novelist I thought I was. Once I got into writing Beware the Solitary Drinker, though, I found I was entirely comfortable with the form. I think I sort of needed the conventions of the mystery novel to provide a structure for my writing. That first novel I mentioned was over 800 pages long in the first draft. After a couple of rewrites, I got it down to 400-something. As you can guess, it was bit unwieldy. The mystery novel provided a structure and provided the basics of a ready-made plot: someone killed someone and your protagonist needs to find out who did it and why. Well, by the time I finished [Beware the Solitary Drinker], what Ruth Cavin said was no longer true. In fact, she (or one of her assistants) rejected the book. It took years to find a publisher for that one. I finally found a publisher in France, Francois Guerif at Rivages/Noir, so I sold my first book [translated as Prends garde au buveur solitaire] in France before I found a publisher here in the U.S.

JKP: After writing and publishing three McNulty yarns, the last one being Death at the Old Hotel, you pretty much disappeared from bookstore shelves, though you maintained a presence at conventions such as Bouchercon. Nine years went by before you introduced your fourth novel, Murder at the 42nd Street Library. What was behind that hiatus? Was it your choice, or your publisher’s?

CL: First of all, I was writing the entire time. It was a hiatus from being published, and it was definitely not by choice. My publisher, Thomas Dunne Books/St Martin’s Minotaur, didn’t want to continue the McNulty series because the sales weren’t good enough. This was around the time of one of those turning point in publishing when the publishers gave up on the idea of slowly building an author through three or four books until sales became respectable. Really good writers—Reed Farrel Coleman, Scott Phillips, Eddie Muller, Jim Fusilli, many others—were dropped by publishers after really good books didn’t sell well enough. Death at the Old Hotel came out in June 2007. I don’t remember when I found out they weren’t going to do another book in the series. By the time I found out, I was a good way into a fourth McNulty book. My editor, Marcia Markland at Thomas Dunne, hadn’t given up on me, even though she couldn’t sell the house on another McNulty. She said I should write a different book: “Something no one ever thought of before that could star Matt Damon.” I fiddled around with a number of ideas I might pitch to her and talked things over with my agent, Alice Martell. Alice told me she doubted she could sell the McNulty series to another New York publisher because of the sales numbers. So if I wanted to finish the book I was working on, we’d have to try a small press and hope something worked out there. Otherwise, I should write a different book—and she wasn’t especially hopeful about selling that either. Her advice was that if I wanted to sell a book, I should become famous. Agent and editor were both being facetious (Marcia is still my editor and Alice Martell is still my agent). But they provided a pretty good description of what publishers were looking for.

I ran into Marcia at either Malice Domestic or Bouchercon in 2008. She had an idea: I should write a mystery set at the 42nd Street Library. So I did. No contract, no promise of publication, just an idea. I was still working at NEA then; writing time was limited, so it took a while. At any rate, I wrote the book and sent it to her in early 2011. Basically, it was an unsolicited manuscript. Marcia isn’t the world’s speediest editor at getting things read. So, for this reason and that, she held onto the book for a while. At some point, she asked me to send her a proposal for a second book in the series. I did. What happened was she rejected the book I sent her and gave me a contract for the proposed book, as yet unwritten, which became Murder at the 42nd Street Library. I began [work on that] in the fall of 2011, spent the winter of 2012 in the Frederick Lewis Allen Memorial Room at the 42nd Street Library writing it, and turned it in, if I remember correctly, in 2014. It took this long to get it to publication. In the meanwhile, I’ve written a second Raymond Ambler book, also under contract.

JKP: About your librarian … Is it true, that his name was meant to honor both Raymond Chandler and Eric Ambler?

CL: I don’t think I ever said that to anyone. But a couple of people, including reviewers, made the connection. I came up with the name for the first book, before he was curator of the crime-fiction collection, so the name might have begot the collection and his new identity. So the answer is yes. I almost changed it a couple of times, but it stuck.

JKP: I always find it interesting to read your novels, because you’re an absolute demon for complicated plot twists and hidden motives. Which authors have been most influential in leading you to construct your mysteries as you do?

CL: My editor said when I was beginning the second Ambler book, “Try to make it simple. You have enough going on in that last book for two or three mysteries.” I don’t try to obfuscate. I don’t try to make it difficult for the reader. But I don’t like to explain. I try to write so I don’t have to explain, and this might require the reader to do some work. I don’t watch TV shows very often. When I do watch them sometimes, a lot of times, what’s going to happen next in a show is obvious to me—the body lying in the tub isn’t really dead, despite the axe sticking out of his head; he’s going to bounce back up in a minute, and so he does. That’s not the same thing as the suspense Hitchcock talks about where the viewer knows there’s a bomb under the table and the card players don’t. The first is just something predictable happening. I’ve been accused of being predictable myself. But I don’t like it. I try not to be predictable.

I mentioned Hammett and Chandler. I’m very much influenced by them. That’s why I began writing mysteries. But I don’t think I write like them, except maybe a little bit in tone with McNulty, the mean streets sort of thing. Ross Macdonald is who I think I’m most like—not that I’d put myself in the same league. Megan Abbott, who read Murder at the 42nd Street Library early on, made that connection of secrets in the past working themselves out in the present.

I think there were two strains of crime writing coming out of Hammett and Chandler. Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar) went one way; John D MacDonald went another way. A lot of writers who came after were much influenced by John D. (a writer I appreciate much more now than I did when I was beginning to write mysteries), some writing today who might not realize his influence on them. For a lot of reasons, I connected with Ross Macdonald and not John D. The next major influence, after those two was Robert B. Parker—a huge influence on many of today’s crime-fiction writers. I didn’t connect with him either, though I think, because he opened up so many new kinds of possibilities for crime fiction, he influenced me without my reading him much.

I also connected with a number of European writers. The aforementioned Eric Ambler, Georges Simenon, Nicholas Freeling, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and others. But Ross Macdonald was my new Nelson Algren. He’s the writer I read over and over again. I spent a couple of days a couple of different times reading his notebooks in the library at the University of California-Irvine, where his papers are collected. I went there the first time after reading Tom Nolan’s wonderful biography. At the moment, I’m reading Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

JKP: Can I assume that an important secondary character in your new book, distinguished crime-fictionist Nelson Yates, takes at least part of his name from Nelson Algren?

CL: [And] Richard Yates was one of my fiction-writing teachers at Columbia and a major influence on me also. Why do people keep thinking I combine writers’ names for character names in my book? Actually, for a while, the character’s last name was Macdonald.

JKP: You mention as background that Ambler has “practiced tai chi for 20 years.” Why make that an element of your protagonist’s character?

CL: I had a boss years ago, a young man from Taiwan, whose adoptive parents opened a restaurant for him to run in Middletown, Connecticut. I was the bar manager. He’d been trained from childhood in tai chi. Tai chi, which most Americans think of as a set of exercises, is a martial art. One night, a drunken cook who knew some karate tried to take him on in the parking lot of the restaurant. It supposedly started as a joke—but those kinds of things with drunks are never jokes. The cook threw punches, kicked, charged like a bull. Andrew, my boss, sunk and turned and listened. He threw no punches, no kicks, but the drunk cook couldn’t touch him. Basically, the cook beat himself up. It was a bit like the fight in Murder at the 42nd Street Library.

I do tai chi exercises. I know the form. But I’m not proficient at it as a martial art, nor do I know the underlying philosophy, Taoism, that well. I keep at it, take a course now and again. But I’m not dedicated enough to become proficient. It’s sort of the peaceful martial art—softness, yielding, to overcome strength, or more properly to allow strength to overcome itself. Don’t quote me. The unpublished book had a lot more tai chi in it because I was taking a class at the time I was writing it.

JKP: I was surprised to read, on the back of the advance reader’s copy of Murder at the 42nd Street Library, that this was the first installment in a series that “features crime à la library at some of America’s most famous institutions of higher learning.” Does that mean you’re planning to take Ambler on the road, have him investigate murders and other nefarious acts at libraries around the United States? Or do you plan to stick with New York City libraries?

CL: I was surprised to read that myself. The second book is set at the 42nd Street Library. That library is a fascinating enough place to handle any number of murder mysteries, which is what I was inclined to do. I’m not averse to setting crimes at other libraries. There are a lot of great libraries, with interesting collections, histories, and architecture. I haven’t started a third book yet. I don’t know if the publisher will continue the Ambler series. I have a lot of ideas for the series, so I’d like to keep going. I’ll begin a new book soon without knowing if the series will continue, so at the moment, I don’t know what the book will be.

JKP: Do you have writing ambitions beyond what you’ve already achieved? Would you like to pen works other than crime fiction?

CL: So far I’ve been able to tell all the stories I want to tell, address all the reasons I write fiction in the mystery novels I’ve written. If I came up with a story I needed to tell and couldn’t tell it within the conventions of the mystery novel, I might write another kind of book. I think that book would be a tragedy—some might call it noir—along the lines of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie or An American Tragedy or Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Ross Macdonald tried to write what he called “an autobiographical novel about my depressing childhood in Canada.” He couldn’t do it. Instead, he found Lew Archer to be kind of a filter than enabled him to write about the things that were closest and most important to him. The detective novel has served that purpose for me also.

JKP: Finally, are there things about the writing of fiction or your own abilities as an author in this field that you’ve learned over the years, but wish you had known from the outset?

CL: I’ve been writing fiction a long time and I’ve been teaching fiction writing and mystery writing for a few years now. I read any number of books on fiction writing—dozens, if not scores—both when I was learning to write and later as I was learning to teach fiction writing. I’ve come to believe that you learn best about writing fiction—mysteries—by reading the books of fiction themselves, more than from reading books about how to write fiction. I’m not saying don’t study the craft. Some of the books on craft are helpful but only in the context of reading the works of fiction themselves. Starting over, I would have paid more attention to how the writers I identified with did what they did by reading and re-reading and thinking about the books I felt a kinship with.

READ MORE:Con Lehane & Lola” (Coffee with a Canine).