Saturday, September 20, 2014

May’s Day

When I met for an evening drink last week in Seattle with Glasgow-born crime writer Peter May--who is in the midst of a month-long international book tour--he confided that were he still a resident of Scotland (rather than living now in France), he’d have supported his native country’s recent referendum seeking independence from Great Britain. Well, that vote did not go as he’d wished, but May might feel somewhat compensated by having won the 2014 Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award for his latest novel, Entry Island (Quercus). The announcement came tonight during the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival being held in Stirling, the onetime capital of Scotland.

The other contenders for this honor were: Flesh Wounds, by Christopher Brookmyre (Little, Brown); The Amber Fury, by Natalie Haynes (Corvus); Falling Fast, by Neil Broadfoot (Saraband); A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh (John Murray); and In the Rosary Garden, by Nicola White (Cargo).

Congratulations to all of the nominees.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Pierce’s Picks: “Darkness, Darkness”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Darkness, Darkness, by John Harvey (Pegasus)

The Gist: “And so after 12 novels, 16 short stories, two television adaptations, and four radio plays, Darkness, Darkness marks the final appearance of John Harvey’s stalwart and long-serving detective, Charlie Resnick,” explains the blog Crime Fiction Lover. A Polish-descended detective inspector with the police in the East Midlands city of Nottingham, Resnick made his debut in 1989’s Lonely Hearts, conceived of by author Harvey as “very much in the mold of Frank Furillo,” the middle-management type in charge of the eccentric squad on television’s Hill Street Blues—only “instead of wearing smart off-the-pegs suits, [he] was outfitted by the same tailor as Columbo.” The redundantly titled Darkness, Darkness finds Resnick “even more melancholy than usual, filled with regrets and thoughts of his own mortality,” writes Adam Woog in The Seattle Times. “The rumpled, canny and jazz-loving Resnick is also retired and bored--until a young detective, Catherine Njoroge, asks for help investigating the recently discovered remains of a woman [Jenny Hardwick] who had disappeared in the mid-1980s. That period was a dark moment in England’s history: a bitter coal miners’ strike that devastated the nation. It also tore friends and family apart--as with the murder victim, a strike supporter, and her husband, a miner who became a scab rather than strike.” Harvey, says Kirkus Reviews, “seamlessly weaves together the present-day investigation into Jenny’s death--a process complicated by not only the passage of time, but also the lingering distrust stirred up by the strike and its aftermath--and the last weeks of Jenny’s life.” A secondary plot line about Njoroge’s confrontations with an abusive ex-lover adds further emotional depth to this yarn.

What Else You Should Know: Jake Kerridge, who writes about crime fiction for Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, had a nice take on Resnick’s legacy, when this book was first published in the UK this last summer:
In the early-to-mid-1990s it looked like Resnick was set to be the new star British sleuth, and although by the end of the decade he had been superseded in the public’s affections by Ian Rankin’s [John] Rebus, Harvey’s books have hogged the critics’ superlatives, even being compared by Elmore Leonard, no less, with Graham Greene, no less.

Rebus may be the greater imaginative creation, but Resnick seems to me to be the more authentic portrayal of what the average real-life copper is like. Over the years he has become more of an observer than a man of action, and indeed this book finds him retired from the fray and advising the police in a civilian capacity. There are intimations of obsolescence--he is baffled by some aspects of modern life and no longer even recognizes most of the names on the bill at Ronnie Scott’s--but unlike Ruth Rendell’s increasingly bewildered Inspector Wexford, Resnick still convinces as a competent detective.
However, it’s Raven--a pseudonymous reviewer for Crime Fiction Lover--who gets the final word here: “Obviously to avoid spoilers, I will make no reference to how Resnick bows out [at the end of Harvey’s new novel], but think I am definitely not alone in mourning the loss of this character [from the] crime fiction arena. With Darkness, Darkness, Harvey has conjured up a fitting and emotive final outing for this long-lasting and influential character. As a stolid fan of John Harvey I thank him for it--the final scene is perfect. We’ll miss you, Charlie Resnick.”

READ MORE:Author John Harvey Interview: Resnick’s Last Case,” by Lynette Pinchess (Nottingham Post).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bullet Points: Pre-Scotland Vote Edition

• Today marks 50 years since the London debut of Goldfinger, the third big-screen action film starring Sean Connery as Ian Fleming’s British super-spy, James Bond. As I noted in a previous post--complete with the motion picture’s opening title sequence--“the American release of Goldfinger didn’t come until December 22, 1964.” The HMSS Weblog has a bit more to say about Goldfinger here.

• 2014 year marked the first time contenders for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger in the Library award were selected by readers on the Web. With the nomination process having now concluded, here’s the longlist of writers who are vying for that prize (plus the names of their usual publishers):

-- M.C. Beaton (Constable & Robinson)
-- Tony Black (Black and White Publishing)
-- Sharon Bolton (Transworld Publishers)
-- Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
-- Mari Hannah (Pan)
-- James Oswald (Michael Joseph)
-- Phil Rickman (Corvus)
-- Leigh Russell (No Exit Press)
-- Mel Sherratt (Thomas & Mercer)
-- Neil White (Sphere)

The CWA explains that “Unlike most other literary prizes, the Dagger in the Library honours an author’s whole body of work to date, rather than a single title.” A shortlist of nominees will be announced on November 3, with the winner slated to be revealed during an event at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London, in late November. (Hat tip to the Euro Crime Blog.)

• Steve Aldous, who in July contributed an interesting and important piece to The Rap Sheet about Ernest Tidyman and the “ghost writers” he employed to create his seven novels about black New York City gumshoe John Shaft, directs our attention toward this interview with David F. Walker. Walker has been hired to write Dynamite Entertainment’s new line of Shaft comic books. “Some good news,” Aldous says, “in that Walker is a fan of the books and [is] using them as the basis for his writing. He is effectively doing an origins story, setting the [Dynamite] series a year before Tidyman’s novel.” The first Shaft comic produced by Walker and artist Bilquis Evely is due out in December, with a cover by Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz that you can preview right here. Walker has promised to post updates about his Shaft efforts in his own blog.

• Actress Julia McKenzie will return this coming Sunday evening as Agatha Christie’s popular spinster sleuth in the first of three new episodes of Miss Marple, all set to be broadcast over two weekends as part of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! series.

• Scott Adlerberg has a nice piece in the blog Hardboiled Wonderland about the film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels.

• News from publisher New Pulp Press:
Starting January 1, 2015, Jon Bassoff, [the company’s] founder, will be handing over control and ownership of the award-winning press to Jonathan Woods and Shirrel Rhoades of Key West, Florida. While Jon Bassoff will still be associated with New Pulp Press in an advisory role, Jonathan Woods will be in charge of acquisitions and editorial matters. Shirrel Rhoades will take the lead on business, marketing and distribution.

Jonathan Woods, as a writer, has been associated with New Pulp Press since its early days. New Pulp Press has published three of his books, including the groundbreaking
Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem. ‘Jonathan shares the same warped sensibilities that I do,” said Jon Bassoff. “I look forward to seeing where he takes this rowdy little press next.”

Shirrel Rhoades has had a long and distinguished career in publishing, including a stint as EVP and Publisher of Marvel Comics. He currently owns and manages an eBook publishing business called Absolutely Amazing eBooks that publishes a broad range of titles from horror to humor, non-fiction to mystery. “Shirrel’s marketing expertise and his existing publishing business will competitively enhance New Pulp Press and bring its writers to a wider audience,” said Bassoff.
• When you need a Mod Squad fix, check out this YouTube page.

• If you haven’t yet noticed, Criminal Element contributor Jake Hinkson has spent early September celebrating the four classic films in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appeared together. Here are the links: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948).

• Speaking of the late Ms. Bacall, the blog Down These Mean Streets offers a link to an episode of the Lux Radio Theatre from 1946 in which she and Bogie give voice to a “wireless” adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.

• I admit, I haven’t watched the USA Network crime drama White Collar lately, and probably not since the delightful Hilarie Burton bowed out of her recurring role on that show as insurance company investigator Sara Ellis. So I was surprised to learn, from Crimespree Magazine’s blog, that the series’ sixth and concluding season will begin on Thursday, November 6. Wow, it seems like only yesterday that White Collar had its premiere

• Happy fourth birthday to The Nick Carter & Carter Brown Blog!

• Interviews worth reading: Libby Fischer Hellmann (Nobody’s Child) answers questions from Omnimystery News; Benjamin Whitmer (Cry Father) chats with MysteryPeople; Reed Farrel Coleman (Robert B. Parker’s Blind Spot) goes a round with Crimespree; and Chelsea Cain (One Kick) responds to queries fielded by LitReactor.

• Crime Fiction Lover continues its “Classics in September” series with remarks on Adam Hall’s The Quiller Memorandum, Ngaio Marsh’s best books, and a critic’s selection of the “20 Greatest Crime Movies of All Time.” Links to the whole series are being collected here.

• The Blogger software has finally forced our list of new crime fiction, due out between now and December 31, off of The Rap Sheet’s front page. (It apparently doesn’t like lengthy posts stacking up for too long.) However, you can still study that catalogue of more than 275 titles here. Prepare to expand your to-be-read pile!

Is this Nero Wolfe’s old Manhattan brownstone?

• We’d heard that new publisher Brash Books would be reprinting W.L. Ripley’s original three novels featuring football player turned troubleshooter Wyatt Storme (who debuted in 1993’s Dreamsicle). But now Brash reports that it will also bring out a brand-new Storme tale, Storme Warning. All four are due in bookstores in early 2015.

• Registration for ThrillerFest 2015, to be held (as usual) in New York City from July 7 to 11 of next year, is now open. Next year’s ThrillerMaster will be Nelson DeMille.

• Patti Abbott’s 2015 debut as a novelist (with Concrete Angel) will be abetted by a very fine-looking book cover.

• Critics At Large writer Nick Coccoma isn’t thrilled with Dennis Lehane’s new big-screen movie. “The Drop has some of the finer performances of American society’s white urban underclass we’ve seen in a long time,” he writes, “maybe even since Brando and his crew. In the end, it adds up to a frustrating, wasteful nothing.” UPDATE: Michael Carlson is much fonder of Lehane’s book version.

The Chill remains one of my favorite Ross Macdonald novels.

• And this sounds mildly intriguing. In Reference to Murder reports that “Shondaland productions and Person of Interest co-executive producer David Slack are teaming up for an ensemble [TV] cop drama titled Protect and Survive that centers on the last LAPD precinct fighting to hang on in Los Angeles after a massive disaster.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Lovesey’s Long Run for Renown

If you have paid a visit to the Kirkus Reviews Web site this morning, you’ve probably already spotted my new interview there with distinguished British mystery writer Peter Lovesey. I took the opportunity recently to quiz him--via e-mail--about The Stone Wife (Soho Crime), his 14th outing for Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond of the Bath, England, police department. As I explain in the article, that novel finds the irritable but determined Diamond trying to
get to the bottom of an auction-house holdup, during which the top bidder for a massive slab of carved stone was killed. The deceased: John Gildersleeve, a professor of Medieval English and an authority on Geoffrey Chaucer, who believed the coveted artifact--known as the Wife of Bath--was linked to his favorite English poet. Was Gildersleeve’s shooting incidental to the theft, or was the robbery a smokescreen for croaking the educator? Diamond’s probing sends him to Chaucer’s house in Somerset, while his colleague Ingeborg Smith pursues an undercover inquiry into illicit weapons suppliers. A rookie cop gone missing and fears that the Wife has cursed Diamond’s office add to this tale’s complications.
But what often happens with my interviews happened with this one, too: I had more to ask Lovesey about than I had room for his answers in Kirkus. So I’m posting the balance of our exchange below.

This is actually the second time I have carried on a lengthy discussion with Lovesey. He’s very unlikely to remember that, however, because the first occasion was way back in 1981. At the time, I was a staff writer for the “alternative weekly” newspaper Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon. It was my first job out of college, and I was brimming with excitement at the chance not only to cover serious local news, but to contribute to the paper’s entertainment section, Fresh Weekly. I wound up doing a number of author interviews for FW, including with Robert B. Parker, Arthur Lyons, and George C. Chesbro, but Lovesey was the earliest one I conducted through the public mails. With his American publisher’s assistance, I sent a letter to him in early 1981, asking whether he’d be willing to field questions from me concerning his life and career, and he said “yes.”

Lovesey, by then, had seen 10 of his novels published, most of them--starting with 1970’s Wobble to Death--starring Sergeant Cribb, a military man turned London policeman, who’d advanced to Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in part as a result of the local force’s embarrassing “Turf Fraud” corruption scandal of 1877. Cribb wasn’t an intellectual rival of Sherlock Holmes; he couldn’t deduce the height, weight, and intestinal ailments of a suspect simply by sticking his nose into the man’s pipe shag. Instead, he was a tenacious detective capable of meanness and deceit, but in the words of his creator, “a fine exemplar of a popular Victorian adjective: earnest.” Cribb’s polite persistence at pursuing clues scattered about a case usually resulted in a conviction.

My particular interest in Lovesey in 1981 revolved around Cribb, a British television series then beginning its second-season run on U.S. public broadcast stations (under the title Sergeant Cribb). Lovesey, with his wife, Jackie (aka Jax), was writing all of the episodes, eight of which were based on his Cribb novels. A pilot, adapted from Waxwork (1978), his Silver Dagger Award-winning final Cribb tale, was shown in the UK just before Christmas, 1979, with the series following the next spring. English thespian Alan Dobie took the role of Sergeant Cribb, with Welsh actor William Simons playing his less-brilliant but still indispensable partner, Constable Edward Thackeray.

Intending to compose a piece about Cribb and Lovesey for Fresh Weekly, I made an initial contact with the author and then followed-up with four typewritten pages containing 42 questions. (Even back then, it seems, I had enough cheek and curiosity for half a dozen other writers.) Lovesey responded a couple of weeks later with five typewritten pages containing his answers, along with a cover letter that concluded: “If you have some more questions, I would appreciate it if they were not too many, as I can’t spare much more time on this. Perhaps I’ve given you enough already? I’m an optimist.” (Amazingly, I saved all of that correspondence, and have now scanned and posted it here for your edification.) Due to reasons I cannot now recall, the entertainment editor of Willamette Week ultimately could not use my finished article, so I peddled it instead to the TV section of Portland’s largest daily paper, The Oregonian.

(Left) Peter Lovesey in 1981. (Photograph by Philip Lovesey.)

Over the last three decades, Peter Lovesey has taken his career well beyond the Cribb yarns, as popular as they were--and continue to be. He’s concocted two other mystery series: one (beginning with 1987’s Bertie and the Tinman) that imagines Queen Victoria’s amiable but randy oldest son, Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales—and future King Edward VII—as a manifestly inexpert sleuth; and the other led by the aforementioned Peter Diamond (who debuted in 1991’s The Last Detective, a work that captured the Anthony Award for Best Novel). In addition, this author has produced half a dozen standalones, among them: The False Inspector Dew--one of my personal favorites from his oeuvre--which won the 1982 Gold Dagger from the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA); On the Edge (1989), adapted for the small screen in 2002 as Dead Gorgeous (all of which can be watched online, beginning here); 2000’s The Reaper, the one-off novel that Lovesey says “I like best”; and The Circle, which gave Detective Chief Inspector Henrietta “Hen” Mallin (from The House Sitter, 2003) her first starring role. Lovesey served as the chair of the CWA from 1991 to 1992, and in 2000, received the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger lifetime achievement award for his crime-fiction writing.

I never thought that, 33 years after I originally interviewed him, I would again be sending Peter Lovesey a list of questions--45 of them on this occasion, three more than before. But with no complaints, the now 78-year-old novelist answered every one, telling me about his boyhood experiences during World War II, his longstanding interest in track-and-field sports, the origins--and first name--of Sergeant Cribb, the historical class structure of Scotland Yard, Peter Diamond’s struggles as a character, and so much more. As I said, the first part of our exchange was posted earlier today in Kirkus Reviews. The larger portion of our e-mail discussion can be enjoyed below.

J. Kingston Pierce: I know very little about your parents, other than that your father left school early--at age 13, I believe. What did your father do for a living? And was it your parents who instilled in you a love for reading, or did that come later, from another influence?

Peter Lovesey: My father joined a bank after leaving school and was a bank clerk all his working life, apart from the six years of World War II, when he was in the army. My mother leaned shorthand at Pitman’s secretarial college and had mainly secretarial jobs, eventually becoming secretary to the general manager of the Parker Pen company in the UK. After marriage she became a mother and housewife like most of her generation. They encouraged their three children through school and we were all keen readers. The love of books must have been in the genes. My paternal grandfather, Charles Lovesey, was the son of a woodman, but taught himself Latin and Greek and became a grammar-school headmaster. His wife, Minnie, won a prize for poetry. On my mother’s side, great-grandfather was a bookbinder and we still have editions of Dickens he bound.

JKP: You were born in Whitton, which was once a town known for its gardens and orchards, but is now part of southwest London. What was your childhood like?

PL: Good research! When we lived there it was suburban London, built over, with a couple of small parks and a long street of shops beside the station where commuter trains took us in 30 minutes to London Waterloo. But my father, who worked in west London, cycled to the bank until the mid-1950s, when they bought their first car. I did a lot of cycling myself and got to know places nearby, such as Hampton Court [Palace], where King Henry VIII once presided; Kneller Hall, the home of military music; and Twickenham rugby ground, where all the big rugby football internationals were played. Sport was a major part of our lives and Dad followed it keenly (his own father had captained Devon at rugby and played against international teams), and took us to soccer, cricket, and athletics. Unfortunately, I was hopeless at ball games and athletics, but followed sport keenly all my life and it got me started in writing.

JKP: Whitton was damaged by bombs during World War II. Were you still living there during that period? And how did that war shape the young Peter Harmer Lovesey?

PL: I was 3 at the outbreak of war and 9 when it ended. Being kids, we felt none of the stress and enjoyed the excitement. For us, the war was mainly going on overhead and we got to recognize the various planes and their engine sounds. We were taught the routine of going down into shelters during raids. Afterwards no one could stop us scouring the streets for bits of shrapnel from bombs.

In August 1944, my own house was destroyed by a V-1 ”flying bomb” that landed in the back garden. Miraculously, we all survived, although our neighbors in the other half of the suburban semi were killed. I was at school (down a shelter) and my mother had gone shopping, leaving my two brothers, John and Andrew, in the house. When the air-raid warning sounded, they got under the Morrison shelter, a cast-iron table with metal grille sides, and were dug out alive. Of course it was a huge event in our lives that I remember vividly. We were homeless and spent some weeks on a farm in Cornwall. Some of those experiences went into a book I wrote later, called Rough Cider [1986]. We were without books for some time (understandably my parents had other priorities, finding us food and clothes and somewhere to live), and I can recall the excitement some years after when I found two books in a cupboard. One was The Life of Sir Edward Marshall Hall [1929], about a persuasive defense lawyer involved in many of the great murder trials of the early 20th century. The other was Alias the Saint [1931], by Leslie Charteris. In my ignorance I thought this must be a religious book. I read them both, over and over, and filled my head with crime of the real and fictional sort.

JKP: Did you say you have siblings?

PL: John, seven years my senior, followed our father into the banking profession and ultimately became a director of several banks. Andrew, who was three years younger than me, became a doctor of biochemistry and was registrar of a London hospital. He wrote a sci-fi/fantasy book, The Half-Angels, published in 1975, and would have written more, but he died of diabetes at the age of 40.

JKP: I understand you first became really interested in sports at age 12, when you went to see the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Was that your parents’ doing? And what do you remember from those Games that excited you in particular?

PL: The Olympics were a big inspiration. Almost as big, however, was being taken by my father in 1945, at the end of the war, to London’s White City stadium, to see the world record-breaking Swedes, [Gunder] Hägg and [Arne] Andersson, take on Sydney Wooderson, Britain’s world record-holder for the 880 yards. The crowds were huge, and we didn’t get in, but we stood outside. Just hearing the crowd fired my imagination. Later the same year, we did get in to a big sports event, when the Moscow Dynamo soccer team played Arsenal, but a ”pea-soup” fog came down and it was difficult to see anything. Thwarted again--yet the excitement at both big events was intoxicating. More than 50 years later, I was thrilled to get to know Wooderson as a friend.

But you asked about the 1948 Olympics. They were at Wembley and Dad managed to get tickets for one day only. The big race was the women’s 80 meters hurdles in which the star of the games, the “Flying Dutchwoman,” Fanny Blankers-Koen, defeated the Englishwoman, Maureen Gardner, in a photo finish. The entire experience of the games was an inspiration that hasn’t faded.

JKP: Is it true that you were one of London’s first joggers? Can we also put that down to the influence of the ’48 Olympics?

PL: Jogging is the right term. I was never able to do anything I could describe as running. The desire was there, but not the performance. So I shuffled along the streets, kidding myself that it would turn me into an athlete. And, yes, I dreamed of moving like my idol from the Olympics, [Emil] Zátopek. His reward had been a gold medal. Mine was sore shins and bruised heels. By now you’re thinking this is all very touching, but what in the name of Agatha does it have to do with crime writing? Hang on and I’ll come to it.

JKP: You attended the University of Reading, from which you received a B.A. Honors in English in 1958. Had you always been an exceptional student?

PL: “Exceptional student” I was not. Thanks to a new government initiative, mine was the first generation to attend university with financial aid. It beat working for a living, so I applied for a Fine Art course and switched to English after the first year. My main achievement was meeting a beautiful psychology student called Jackie [Lewis]. After completing my degree, I wrote to my professor of English asking for a reference and he wrote back: “You will now admit that you did no work at all.” He wasn’t far wrong.

JKP: After graduating, you became a teacher, first at Thurrock Technical College, then Hammersmith College. Is that right? What subject(s) were you lecturing on, and for how long?

PL: Before that I had to do national service (1958-61). I was a pilot officer and then a flying officer [with the Royal Air Force], but didn’t once get off the ground because I was in the education branch. Thankfully the money was good and I married Jackie and we lived well in Hereford, known for its succulent steaks. After the RAF I took the Thurrock job and taught English Language and Literature and something known as Liberal Studies that nobody could define. I moved to Hammersmith College in 1969 as Head of General Education, and remained in the job until 1975, when my earnings from writing were enough to allow me to take the plunge into full-time.

JKP: Were you at all sorry to leave the teaching sphere?

PL: No. Nothing beats writing.

JKP: Then in 1969, you entered a first crime novel contest sponsored by publisher Macmillan. You’d penned one book previous to this time, a non-fiction work called The Kings of Distance (aka Five Kings of Distance), but never a novel. Yet you won that competition (and the £1,000 prize) with Wobble to Death, the book that introduced Sergeant Cribb. Were you astounded to have triumphed so?

PL: To tell it right, I’d channeled my passion for running into writing while I was doing the teaching, first for a magazine and then the book about distance running. Getting into print was a huge boost. The Kings of Distance didn’t sell many copies, but it was named as sports book of 1968 by World Sports magazine. Even so, I couldn’t think of another subject I could write about until I saw an advert in The Times for a first crime novel competition and the prize was bigger than my annual salary. I was tempted to try, but I knew little about the craft of writing whodunits. Fortunately, Jax (she morphed from Jackie into Jax) was a keen reader and she suggested a story based on running would be something new. I recalled that while I was researching the running book I’d come across accounts of ultra-long-distance races in the Victorian era called “Go As You Please Contests.” This, surely, would be something different as a setting. It had to be written quickly, in just over three months. We introduced strychnine (a drug used as a stimulant by Victorian runners) and some murders and a couple of detectives called Cribb and Thackeray. It was entitled Wobble to Death and it won the prize. And, yes, I went straight to Cloud Nine.

videoIntroduction to the Cribb TV series.

JKP: That first Cribb investigation combined two interests of yours--sports, as you say, and the Victorian era. I read somewhere that you first became interested in the late 19th century while doing research into the career of an American Indian who had been a famous runner in Britain during that period. Is that right? And was that Native American Deerfoot, about whom you wrote in The Kings of Distance? What made Deerfoot, also known as Lewis Bennett, so interesting?

PL: I sometimes think Deerfoot is my guardian spirit. His portrait hangs in my study watching me as I write. Years before I wrote anything, I picked up a secondhand copy of a tiny almanac called The Sporting Chronicle Annual and in it was a picture of this Native American Seneca runner who came to England in 1861 and challenged the best British professionals. He was a sensation. He won regularly, of course, and set records no one would approach for many years after. Huge crowds came to watch him as he toured the country, running bare-chested. He stayed for two years, dined with the Prince of Wales and revitalized the sport of pedestrianism, as it was known. He was the first of my “Kings of Distance” and the inspiration that got me going.

JKP: One of the curious things about the prim Victorian Age is that, as you’ve said before, it was easier back then to murder your wife or husband than to divorce her/him. Is that why there were so many males killers and female poisoners during that era?

PL: Did I say that? Well, there was a stigma about divorce that lasted well into the 20th century. A divorcée was someone you wouldn’t invite to dinner. And divorce was made difficult. Cruelty or adultery couldn’t easily be proved. It’s true to say that some of the women poisoners were trapped in marriages from which there was no obvious escape. The threat of scandal in the Victorian era was immense. But of course there were other motives that have largely disappeared with the passing of time. A woman’s property became her husband’s on marriage. Blackmail for a variety of scandalous acts was a big hazard if you were outside the norm. Mental illness was shaming. All of this provides rich material for mystery writers, but blighted many lives.

JKP: Cribb was a rather different character from many fictional Victorian detectives, more rough around the edges and less eloquent than, say, Sherlock Holmes. Were you deliberately trying to change the image of Victorian sleuths?

PL: In choosing a sleuth, I was looking for realism, so I steered clear of amateur or private detectives. I wanted someone with the authority of the police, an ordinary, astute detective, credible as an investigator and working within the limitations of the time. Fingerprints weren’t in use and forensic medicine was not much more than toxicology. He needed to get to the truth mainly by question and answer.

JKP: How important were class differences among 19th-century English policemen? Was it possible for someone of a lower social rank to achieve higher office, or were those positions reserved for people such as Cribb’s superior, Chief Inspector Jowett--men of family means and with military backgrounds, but who boasted less crime-solving experience than many of the coppers on the beat?

PL: Almost without exception the Scotland Yard detectives were intelligent working-class men who came up through the ranks, and this was true of [Frederick] Abberline and his colleagues on the [Jack the] Ripper case. But the high-ups were often ex-army officers like Sir Charles Warren, with his theory about bloodhounds that was exposed as such a fiasco in 1888.

JKP: Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t the only person who perceived the police force in Victorian London as incompetent. Could that bumbling be traced to the fact that many of the people in charge at Scotland Yard hadn’t come up through the ranks?

PL: It’s too sweeping to call them all incompetent. They had some successes in other cases and killers were brought regularly before the courts. The Yard men were often sent out of London to assist the rural police, who really were in difficulty. But of course they didn’t have the technical back-up of modern detectives. Also there was corruption--which was ever thus in police work.

JKP: You penned eight Sergeant Cribb novels, beginning with Wobble to Death and concluding with Waxwork, that last tale set during the spring of 1888--mere months before Saucy Jack commenced his reign of terror. Why end the Cribb series there? Did you not wish to tell more stories after 1888, when the British public lost faith in Scotland Yard, due to its inability to catch the Ripper? Or was there another reason why you moved on?

PL: As the Cribb series got about in Britain and America I thought about giving up the day job. There was interest from Carl Foreman (of High Noon fame) in filming Wobble to Death. With encouragement from Jax, I resigned [from teaching] in 1975 and have made a living from novels ever since. But at the time I doubted whether I could carry on forever writing Victorian mysteries. Between books in the Cribb series, I wrote a book called Goldengirl (1977) using the pen-name Peter Lear and projecting what might happen if an American woman athlete were to become the favorite to win three gold medals at the upcoming Olympics in Moscow. It was about the exploitation of a natural talent. Hollywood bought it and the movie was made starring Susan Anton and James Coburn. I was paid enough money to justify trying new things in the mystery field. By this time I’d already written Waxwork. The fact that this book was set in 1888, the year of Jack the Ripper, was pure coincidence.

video
Trailer for the 1979 film Goldengirl.

JKP: Even though you ceased penning books about them, you did offer a few new cases to Cribb and Thackeray in the 1980-1981 ITV series Cribb. And you wrote about them again in at least one short story (“Razor Bill”). Have you never since thought about building another novel around that wonderful, often funny pair?

PL: Television came along when a review of Waxwork in Time magazine was spotted by June Wyndham-Davies, a Granada producer. It went out at Christmas 1979 with the inspired starring of Alan Dobie. They then commissioned all the other seven books for a series that sold to PBS and many other countries and was ITV’s biggest export in 1980. Jax and I were commissioned to write six new scripts. We quickly used up the few ideas I had for future Cribb books. In a way it drew a line under Sergeant Cribb. I wanted to try different things in writing. More than 30 years on, I doubt whether I could recapture the character as he was conceived.

JKP: You never gave Cribb a first name in the books. But years ago, I asked you in an interview what you thought his first name should’ve been. You answered “Archibald.” Is that still your thinking today?

PL: Spot on. In one of the books his name is written with the initial “A.” Archie was and always will be his first name, though not many people know it.*

JKP: After ending the Cribb series, you went on to compose a succession of standalone mysteries, among them The False Inspector Dew, Keystone, and Rough Cider--all historical tales. And yet the standalone I have heard you’re most proud of is The Reaper, a modern-day yarn featuring a deliciously impious rector, the Reverend Otis Joy. What makes that black comedy such a standout for you? And did it affect your future writing somehow?

PL: All of these stories are a break with the classical whodunit tradition that my series books are locked into. Periodically, I like to write from the point of view of the killer. The personable killer has always fascinated me more than the out-and-out villain. When you start a book you have an idea of how it should turn out. In The Reaper, I wanted to persuade the reader to be in there with Otis Joy, willing him along each step of his wicked way. Most readers--even members of the clergy--tell me I succeeded.

To answer your last question, it was a one-off, and doesn’t influence me, unless it’s subconscious.

JKP: The Reaper is an example of an “inverted mystery,” in which the reader is told whodunit early on, and the trick is to see how long he or she can remain at large after the crime has been committed. Why did you want to try your hand at such a tale?

PL: In Britain we had a serial murderer in a position of trust who was finally caught about the time I was planning this book. Dr. Harold Shipman was convicted of killing 15 of his patients for their money and was said by the police to have murdered as many as 200 more, yet even after his conviction many of his patients refused to believe in his guilt and insisted he was charming and caring. This got me thinking about people who are so trusted that they can kill with impunity.

JKP: Trading further on your reputation for producing sharply plotted but often-amusing historical mysteries, in 1987 you witnessed the publication of Bertie and the Tinman, the first of three novels starring Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales. Had you long harbored an interest in Bertie? And how did you come up with the notion of making him an amateur detective?

PL: I recruited Bertie almost as an afterthought. When writing the Victorian books, I always started with a theme, often some form of entertainment. I’d never written about horse-racing, but Dick Francis did it brilliantly with contemporary characters, so why not try one in a 19th-century setting? I read all I could about the sport of kings and came across the strange story of the sudden suicide of Fred Archer, the royal jockey, whose last words before pulling the trigger were, “Are they coming?” How I could I resist? And how could Bertie, the owner he rode for, resist? It was obvious that I must turn Bertie into an amateur sleuth. One reviewer called it “Dick Francis by Gaslight.”

JKP: Is it true that you’d planned Bertie and the Tinman as a one-off, but were convinced to write two more books about him?

PL: Yes, it was fun being Bertie, writing in the first-person. He was uniquely well-placed to be a sleuth, because he had the power to call for Scotland Yard’s help if he wished or, equally, to command them to keep out of it. The joke was that he was totally inept and the mysteries got solved despite his chaotic efforts. Bertie and the Seven Bodies [1990] was my tribute to Agatha Christie in her centenary year, with a killing each day of the week and a familiar rhyme providing clues. Bertie and the Crime of Passion [1993] took him to Paris with Sarah Bernhardt. He really did once appear on stage with her, acting as a corpse.

JKP: There seem to be a great number of mystery novels nowadays starring real-life characters. Do you find this to be an interesting trend? Or has it been overdone already?

PL: A matter of taste, isn’t it? The writer has to be true to the personality to make it credible.

JKP: What was your original conception of Inspector Peter Diamond, and how do you think he has measured up to your expectations?

PL: Calling him “The Last Detective,” I made him one of the old-school of police sleuths, resisting the teamwork that characterizes modern investigation. Having a central character who does all the active detective work and deduction is impossible in the real world, but all crime writers have to contrive some way of fixing it if their protagonist is to satisfy the reader. Diamond is difficult to work with, clumsy, accident-prone, but has integrity. This is why he has survived 14 books.

JKP: Diamond faced a variety of difficulties during the first books in this series, not the least of which were that he had to find a way back into law enforcement, after storming out of CID, and later lost his beloved wife, Stephanie, to a sniper. But lately he has had an easier time of it. He has a regular girlfriend and seems to have curbed his temper to some degree. Did you always want the man to find a peaceful groove and settle in?

PL: In the first book, I had the unnerving experience of being sidelined by my own creation. At the point when he resigned, it was borne in on me that this strong personality wouldn’t take a reprimand for an offense he felt was excusable. So he quit. I was left with the difficulty first of solving the mystery in a way that still brought him credit, and later of getting him back into the police. It took two books to do it.

The murder of his wife was devastating for him and many of my readers. I’m often asked how I could have done this. I answer that the series would have come to an early end if I hadn’t presented Diamond with a life-changing challenge. The books were getting too cozy, too predictable, and I would have become tired of the character. Maybe it’s happening again …

JKP: One of the things the Peter Diamond series offers you is an ensemble of sorts. Rather than just a single main cop or two detectives, you get to play with a whole cast. Has that provided you opportunities you wanted in character development?

PL: Yes. It’s a nod to Ed McBain, who made the police procedural work. My work won’t stand comparison with his, but I can see the strengths of a group of detectives interacting and achieving.

JKP: If there’s anyone on Diamond’s CID team that seems to attract your attention most, it’s Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith, an attractive young former journalist. She’s been given the opportunity to distinguish herself from the group over the last few books. Was this a planned effort on your part to highlight her skills and activities, to give her a larger role? Or did the character demand that herself?

PL: Ingeborg is clearly brighter than anyone and develops as a detective, getting promoted and taking on a bigger role as Diamond gets more confident. She’d better watch out. One of her predecessors was the likeable Julie Hargreaves, who gets pissed off with Diamond and asks for a transfer. Losing Ingeborg would be another major challenge for Diamond.

JKP: How much of a book like The Stone Wife do you have figured out before you begin writing? Or do you just start, and have faith that things will fall into place as you go along?

PL: These days I’m more relaxed about the plot than I used to be. Early on, I would write an outline, chapter by chapter. But I still have a broad idea of how it will pan out and what the surprises are. I’m not a meticulous plotter preparing clues and laying red herrings, but I like to have some key moments that defy expectation.

JKP: One of the things fiction-writing invites you to do is explore subjects you knew little about, and perhaps as a consequence, develop longstanding interests in those topics. Have you found specific instances of that during your own career?

PL: Tell me about it! That’s one of the joys. I read an article by a member of a famous string quartet saying it was amazing that the four of them hadn’t actually murdered each other--and that was enough to inspire The Tooth Tattoo [2013], about a deadly string quartet with a residence in Bath Spa University. I’m no musician, but my universe expanded.

(Right) The author today.

JKP: In addition to writing about Peter Diamond, you penned two novels in the last decade about cigar-smoking DCI Henrietta “Hen” Mallin, The Circle (2005) and The Headhunters (2008). But the latter came out six years ago. Do you have any plans to resurrect Mallin in a future novel?

PL: Hen Mallin makes her reappearance in the next Diamond book [Down Among the Dead Men], out in 2015.

JKP: I’ve heard before that you weren’t a big reader of crime and mystery fiction prior to sitting down and composing Wobble to Death, that you’d only read a bit of Christie, Charteris, and Ian Fleming. Have your reading tastes changed since, or is your wife, Jax, still the big mystery reader in your family?

PL: I’m more clued up than I was. When I meet other writers I’m usually interested to get to know their work. Through the Detection Club, the Crime Writers’ Association, and the Mystery Writers of America, I’ve met many, so my shelves are overloaded and dipping in the middle. As for Jax, she is a linguist and devotes much of her reading time to some new language. If it’s crime, all well and good, but it has to be in Chinese, French, or Italian.

JKP: Books by which writers in this genre do you most enjoy?

PL: My all-time favorite is Donald E. Westlake in his several identities. He was a staunch friend, too, who once cast me as “Hyman Card of Scotland Yard” in one of his murder mystery weekends at Mohonk Mountain House, in New York. Who else? McBain, [Patricia] Highsmith, [Lawrence] Block, [Graham] Greene, [John] le Carré, [Colin] Dexter, and Doyle.

JKP: Weren’t you responsible for ensuring that Leslie Charteris was given the Crime Writers’ Association’s Cartier Diamond Dagger commendation in 1992? How did that come about?

PL: It’s a committee decision, and one that delighted me because it brought me full circle, with a chance to honor the man whose work introduced me to crime fiction. He wrote back, “At my age (84) it calls for considerable audacity to promise to do anything so far as eight months ahead, but I will take a chance and say that if I am alive and kicking on May 7 next year I shall be most humbly happy to accept the honor which you have so unexpectedly offered me.” He was terrific on the day, speaking without a note, and with great humor. In my turn, I was most humbly happy to meet him. Within a few more months, he passed away.

JKP: Sergeant Cribb made a fine showing on the small screen, but your other stories have found only limited interest among TV and film producers. As you said before, your novel Goldengirl was made into a 1979 science-fiction flick starring Susan Anton, and On the Edge (1989) was brought to television as Dead Gorgeous. You served as a “story consultant” (whatever that means) on the 2003-2007 ITV mystery series Rosemary & Thyme. And I understand that Peter Falk (of Columbo fame) paid you a six-figure sum for rights to The False Inspector Dew, but never did anything with that as far as filming goes. Have you been surprised that so many of your stories have won critical acclaim, but failed to attract attention from film and TV producers?

PL: All writers will tell you of their dalliance with the film and TV people. Sometimes it comes off, but more often it doesn’t. So much has to fall into place at the crucial time. You don’t count on anything, but cash the check quickly when it happens. I had a number of unforgettable lunches with Carl Foreman and Peter Falk, and I count it as a privilege to have spent time with such giants of the entertainment business. By the way, “story consultant” is the best of all jobs, because you read other people’s scripts and make suggestions and get to all the parties, as well as being paid well.

JKP: Do you still hope to bring Peter Diamond to the screen?

PL: He’s probably closer to it than he’s ever been, but I don’t want to jinx the project.

* Lovesey provided a bit more information about Cribb’s name in his 1981 cover letter: “Cribb is called Wally--short for Walter, I think--in Wobble to Death, but he signs something ‘A. Cribb’ in Waxwork. Let’s say that he was probably given the names Archibald Walter and prefers the latter.”

READ MORE:Peter Lovesey Rides Again with The Stone Wife,” by NancyO (The Crime Segments).

Pride of the Scots

Most of the news coming out of Scotland this week seems to be focused around Thursday’s referendum vote on Scottish independence. But Shots’ Ayo Onatade also brings word of which books and authors have been shortlisted for the 2014 Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. They are as follows:

Flesh Wounds, by Christopher Brookmyre (Little, Brown)
The Amber Fury, by Natalie Haynes (Corvus)
Falling Fast, by Neil Broadfoot (Saraband)
Entry Island, by Peter May (Quercus)
A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh (John Murray)
In the Rosary Garden, by Nicola White (Cargo)

The winner will be announced on Saturday, September 20, during the Bloody Scotland International Crime Writing Festival being held this weekend in Stirling.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bouchercon Coming Together

It was pretty obvious, when several of the critics I knew would be attending Bouchercon 2014 started posting about their individual panel discussion assignments, that a preliminary lineup of such presentations was soon to come. And sure enough, yesterday brought this PDF chart of who would be speaking when at the November 13-16 event in Long Beach, California. I haven’t looked closely through it yet, but I did notice that my friends Kevin Burton Smith, Ali Karim, and Peter Rozovsky will be leading talks at one time or another.

As interesting as this schedule is, I’m no less excited to see how the list of attendees for November’s Bouchercon is shaping up.

If you haven’t yet registered for Bouchercon 2014, you can still do so by clicking here and filling out the requisite paperwork.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Get Ready to “Rockford”



It was 40 years ago tonight that The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, debuted on NBC-TV with an episode titled “The Kirkoff Case.” I was still just a kid back then, but I have a strong memory of sitting down in front of my family’s too-small black-and-white TV set to watch that new weekly private-eye series for the first time. The show had a bankable star in Garner, who’d initially made his name on the 1957-1960 Western Maverick, but had gone on to feature in such big-screen hits as The Americanization of Emily, Grand Prix, Marlowe, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and Skin Game. Rockford was also re-teaming Garner with writer and producer Roy Huggins, who had created Maverick (before developing 77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, and many other programs). Small-screen critics in 1974 sounded notably optimistic about The Rockford Files’ future.

I recall one column in particular, written during the summer of 1974 by Francis Murphy, the longtime TV reviewer for my hometown newspaper, the Portland Oregonian. It began: “James Garner believes that his new series, The Rockford Files, will contain overtones of the dry sense of humor that made Maverick such a hit. Garner calls it the ‘Holy cow, I’m going to get killed’ attitude.” During an interview conducted in Beverly Hills, California, the actor had described for Murphy the essence of his character, Jim Rockford:
I’m a [Los Angeles] private detective. I’ve spent five years in [San Quentin] prison on a bum rap. I like people and have empathy for those in trouble. I put on a business-like exterior but I’m a soft touch.

I deal with closed files, or rather inactive cases which no longer interest the police. I help people who have been unjustly accused or whose reputation has been smeared. I have a gun, but with my record I can’t get a permit to use it, so I keep it in a coffee can.
TV Guide subsequently devoted a full page to The Rockford Files in its September 7, 1974, Fall Preview edition (see the image on the left, which you can right-click to enlarge). Its typically cheeky write-up added a few more details to the series’ concept:
Rockford is especially interested in cases the police have not been able to solve. This does not make him terribly popular at police headquarters, but he trudges onward, smiling that amiable Garner smile, tailing suspects, being tailed by other suspects, trying to talk people out of beating him up, and hoping that this week, for a change, the seductive woman who has invited him to her apartment won’t pull a gun on him.
The 90-minute Rockford pilot film, which guest-starred lovely Lindsay Wagner (and can be watched right here), was first broadcast on Wednesday, March 27, 1974. It drew high ratings and established the framework of the series to follow. James Scott Rockford was a Korean War veteran (just like Garner), who lived in a trailer on the beach at Santa Monica (initially at 2354 Pacific Coast Highway, but later at 29 Cove Road). The trailer was also his business office, which--as he explained in the pilot--could be moved whenever he took cases out of town (though I don’t believe it was ever carted around for those purposes). Rockford charged $200 a day for his services, plus expenses, though he was frequently either cheated out of his pay or waved it to help clients in need. He drove a gold-colored Pontiac Firebird Esprit, which he often piloted at excessive speeds while chasing or outrunning crooks. His father, Joseph “Rocky” Rockford (portrayed in the pilot by Robert Donley, but in the later series by Noah Beery Jr.) was a retired truck driver, who spent more than a little time and wasted breath trying to talk “Jimmy” into ditching P.I. work in favor of wheeling big rigs about the country. Rocky often (if sometimes reluctantly) came to the aid of his only son on difficult cases, but so did other of Rockford’s friends, especially beleaguered Sergeant Dennis Becker (Joe Santos) of the LAPD; Elizabeth “Beth” Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), Rockford’s well-off lawyer and on-and-off girlfriend; and Evelyn “Angel” Martin (Stuart Margolin), an ex-con/con man buddy of Rockford, who couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble--or stop from mixing Rockford up in that same trouble.

NBC’s original notion had been to schedule the hour-long Rockford series on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., following The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie and in bare-knuckle contention against CBS-TV’s Mannix, which featured Mike Connors as yet another L.A. gumshoe. Prior to its debut, however, The Rockford Files was shuffled over to the 9-10 p.m. slot on Friday nights, after the sitcoms Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, and preceding Angie Dickinson’s new crime drama, Police Woman. Nobody knew then how smart a move that would be, or that The Rockford Files would last six seasons, win a shelf-load of Emmy Awards, and become one of the most successful and beloved private-eye series ever shown on American television. Garner, who had previously played Raymond Chandler’s P.I., Philip Marlowe, in Marlowe, created in Jim Rockford a character who would become a model for other TV (and book) private eyes to come.

No, none of that could have been predicted on Friday, September 13, 1974, when The Rockford Files initially flickered onto TV screens across the United States, with a stylish opening sequence including theme music composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. Viewers who had followed the show’s pre-debut publicity knew only that James Garner (whose 1971-1972 NBC series, Nichols, had failed to catch on) was returning to television in a Bret Maverick-style role that seemed perfect for him. At 9 p.m. that night, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. We weren’t disappointed.

WATCH MORE: If you’d like to watch “The Kirkoff Case,” that first regular Rockford Files episode, click here.

“Let His Books Speak for Him Again”

Three weeks ago, Los Angeles Times contributor Scott Timberg e-mailed me in hopes of arranging an interview. He was putting together a piece about James Ellroy’s new novel, Perfidia, the opening installment of that author’s “Second L.A. Quartet” of nourish tales, and wanted my thoughts on Ellroy’s reputation and his evolution as a crime writer. I was pleased to respond, and a couple of my quotes wound up in Timberg’s finished feature.

Subsequently, though, Timberg wrote to ask permission to post our entire e-mail Q&A in his blog, CultureCrash. I agree, and so you can now find more of my opinions on Ellroy’s work (which the Times man calls “so damned insightful”) here. Included is this exchange:
I wonder if there’s any sense that he’s lost some of his momentum recently: He has a TV show that went nowhere, his memoir (much of which was quite good, I thought) did not set the world on fire the way My Dark Places did, movies of his work have not matched the success of L.A. Confidential, and he had a very public affair here in L.A. [with] a fellow writer that didn’t end well. Does he seem to be at a funny, maybe vulnerable point now?

I do think many readers look at Ellroy differently now than they did when he first achieved widespread popularity in the mid-1980s. Part of that is a consequence of the higher profile he’s gained since then. We know more details about his life than we did 30 years ago--more about his boyhood delinquency and his teenage years as a self-described “perv,” his obsession with his mother’s slaying and his troubled relationships with women, his alcoholism and his nervous breakdown--and not all of that has cast him in the most favorable light. When he first began writing, his novels were judged on their own strengths and weaknesses; now we perceive each new book partly through our understanding of his personal life, past and present.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s just the way it is. He seems to revel in the ego-stroking that comes from being recognized, being acclaimed by critics, and being courted by the media and by filmmakers alike. But Ellroy may have exposed himself too much. Perhaps he should turn his back on the limelight for awhile, adopt a lower profile, and let his books speak for him again. They’re probably the best ambassadors he could send out into the world.
Again, if you’re interested, you can find the full interview here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Reflections on a Dark “Room”

One of the most rewarding results of reading crime and thriller fiction is to happen across a narrative that makes your consciousness spark at the same time as it entertains you. A bonus is to discover that this same story is also layered with insightful social commentary, and that it poses uncomfortable questions and makes you reassess your worldview. I’ve found that the work of Danuta Reah (who writes as well under the pen name Carla Banks) accomplishes all of that. Her novels are consistently rewarding; I selected Bleak Water as one of my favorite new novels of 2002, and ranked The Forest of Souls among January Magazine’s Best Books of 2005.

Her latest book, The Last Room--released this summer in the UK by Caffeine Nights Publishing--is especially meritorious.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Reah’s fiction should know that her interests lie in exploring the darker dimensions of human nature and motivations; she’s always looking for fresh and striking insights. Her protagonists frequently investigate dangers facing dispossessed or disadvantaged people. In addition to plumbing the rich recesses of her imagination, she’s an avid supporter of literacy programs and has worked as an educational consultant and creative-writing instructor. A resident of Sheffield, England, Reah has long been active in the British Crime Writers’ Association, and she has served as one of the chairs of judges for the CWA Dagger Awards.

I was delighted to receive, not that long ago, a copy of The Last Room and was captivated by its tale, which traverses geopolitics and war, and reveals how the seeds of conflict often lie hidden in manipulations executed during our history. Here’s my story line synopsis from a review I wrote for the Webzine Shots:
With the contemporary world (as ever) in geopolitical turmoil, we find The Last Room reflecting this, in a very disturbing tale of the reality that is often masked under (what former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara described as) ‘the fog of war’. The back story is the Balkan War(s), though the lineage for that conflict, and this disturbing novel [also has roots] further in time, back to WW2 (and African civil wars).

The opening is a terse, grueling snatch of a vicious attack on a pregnant woman [named Nadifa] on Africa’s war-torn Ivory Coast in 2005. This sets the scene for a complex novel which questions if there can ever be any absolute truth …

Moving to 2007 Europe, we follow the aftermath of the suicide of Dr. Ania Milosz, an expert witness involved in the conviction of a child killer, Derek Haynes, who is appealing against his conviction for the murder of six-year old Sagal Akindes (daughter of [the] aforementioned, brutalized asylum seeker from the Ivory Coast).

Neither Ania’s father, retired policeman Will Gillen, nor her fiancé, Dariusz Erland, believes that the linguistics expert jumped to her death, and so starts a trail that snakes its way to the deeds of the past, deeds that some wish to remain hidden in the fog that is war.
After my immersion in this dense, disturbing yarn, I contacted Reah. I had a few questions to ask about her book’s components and construction. She kindly agreed to respond to my queries, but she also offered more information about herself as a novelist. Our exchange, posted below, covered everything from her writing style and her pseudonym to the source of her curiosity about Eastern Europe, her time as the chair of the CWA, and her thoughts on today’s rapidly evolving publishing industry.

Ali Karim: I considered The Last Room to be a solidly crafted, sculptured, narrative that held together a complex plot, with its various unconnected strands weaving themselves through the tale but leaving no visible seams. So am I right in thinking it was plotted extensively before any writing commenced?

Danuta Reah: I’m not a writer who can plot [everything out ahead of time]. I need to be in the story with the characters before I know what will happen. I plot as I go. It’s rather a tense way of writing--what if I never find out what happens? But I can’t seem to write any other way. I’ve found there’s quite a divide among writers between those who plot beforehand and those who plot as they go. I don’t think one way is better than the other--it’s just the way different people write. It’s part of finding your voice as a writer, understanding how you work.

AK: Although it’s far from gratuitously violent, the opening of your novel is somewhat painful to read. Were you concerned about beginning the story with such shocking imagery?

DR: I was, but I wanted to tell this story. I have always been very wary of writing rape scenes, and I was careful to include no physical details of the actual rape. As soon as you do that, you are running the risk of making it titillating.

(Left) Author Danuta Read. (Image courtesy of Zace Photography.)

I worked with asylum seekers from Cote d’Ivoire a few years ago, and I noticed that some of the women came here with stories that didn’t really hold together. I wondered why this was. At that time the country was in such chaos, they should have a legitimate claim for asylum, so why were they telling stories that clearly weren’t true, or weren’t fully true? I realized later, when I learned more about it, that there were some stories they couldn’t tell, especially not to a strange man at the UK border. Women in Cote d’Ivoire who have been raped carry a terrible stigma. Their families, their husbands, their communities can (and do) reject them. Nadifa, in a way, is a Cote d’Ivoirian Everywoman from that time. Rape has been used for centuries as a weapon of war. If anybody doubts how dreadful this is, they should read the Human Rights Watch account of sexual violence against women in Cote d’Ivoire, “My Heart Is Cut.” The first chapter of The Last Room pales into nothing by comparison. I couldn’t write what really happened--I could just hint at it as I stayed in Nadifa’s mind as she saves her children from the soldiers who are attacking her.

AK: The novel boasts a propulsive pace, due in part to your use of short, concise chapters. Did you set out to structure the story this way, or did the narrative simply lead you to offer such short chapters?

DR: I found short chapters very useful. It wasn’t a conscious decision--it’s how it worked out in the writing. There were parts of the book where something happened that lent itself to a chapter, but was quite brief. It was a new thing for me, but I enjoyed writing this way.

AK: Did you consider releasing The Last Room under your Carla Banks pseudonym? It reminded me, both in stylistic and thematic terms, of your 2005 thriller, Forest of Souls, which you did publish as Banks.

DR: The Carla Banks identity was imposed on me by my then publisher. I always wanted to get my name back. I know what you mean--The Last Room, like Forest of Souls and Strangers [2007], is an international thriller, and it is dark and complex. I think this represents a development in my writing--I think this is the way I write now, and I’m happy to have my own name attached to it. But who knows where publishers will take me?

AK: The sections of your new book set in Poland were vividly, and sometimes chillingly, realized. So tell us a little about your geographical and historical research.

DR: My father was Polish, but I didn’t go to Poland myself until I was an adult. I visited the place he was born and lived as a child, Baranovichi, which is now in Belarus. Something we forget about Central and Eastern Europe is that the 1939-45 war did not end well for them. They went from the Nazi occupation--which was far, far worse than anything that was seen in Western Europe--to Soviet occupation under Stalin. The memories of that war are still vivid--not for any vainglorious reasons, but simply because it was so terrible. We know the story of the Jews, but sometimes the horror of that drowns out the horror of what happened to the ethnic Poles. That, too, was close to genocide. The Polish-American poet John Guzlowski has written some powerful poetry about his parents’ memories and experiences in his collections, The Language of Mules and Lightning and Ashes.

I went to Łódź first of all, to a summer conference on forensic linguistics, something that interests me as an academic. I loved the city. Łódź is a bit like my own city of Sheffield--it’s an industrial city that has suffered through depressions, but it’s also a city that has its beautiful places. Like Sheffield, it’s full of trees and green spaces, but Łódź is truly a city in a forest. The Łagiewniki Forest comes right into the city--when I was there first, I stayed in a hotel in the forest.

Łódź also has its war memorials. The extermination center of Chełmno was not so far away, and the Litzmannstadt (German name for Łódź) Ghetto was one of the major centers where Jews from across Europe were sent. You can still walk the lines of the Ghetto boundaries, and in the Jewish graveyard, as I describe in the book, there are the grave pits the last Ghetto survivors were forced to dig. Like so many Eastern European cities--like Warsaw, like Minsk--Łódź is haunted by a terrible past. But Łódź also has lovely memories of its Jewish community before the Holocaust. The graves show how long the families had lived there, the buildings and the statues on the streets remember the Jews of Łódź--there is one of Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano; his parents are buried in the Jewish graveyard. There are so many stories to tell from that time. I think I will revisit it.

AK: You write very strong male characters, especially from the perspective of protagonists Will Gillen and Dariusz Erland. Can you tell us how you see the differences between writing from the female or male points of view?

DR: I’m glad you found the male characters convincing--I hoped they were, but it takes a man to spot it. I suppose I have lived with men all my life. I was very close to my father, I have a son, I have a brother, I have a brief and very bad marriage in my past, and an enduring and very happy one in my present. And over the years I have had many, many male friends. I try to drop behind the male eye, and see the world from that perspective. I think men express their emotions differently from women. Both Will and Dariusz are grieving, but neither of them deals with grief in quite the way a woman would. I think they are both quite isolated--they come from backgrounds where men are expected not to show their emotions, Will as a senior police officer, Dariusz with his background in the social unrest around the Solidarity movement. In both cases, their environment expects them to be less emotional, and I found I could work with that.

AK: There were moments in this story, especially in the later sections set in Poland, that were upsetting, guaranteed to draw out emotions in the reader. As an author, how difficult do you find it traversing the tightrope that has pathos on one side and melodrama on the other?

DR: The Last Room is a book about grief--real grief, not the faux version we see too often across our television screens. Grief is a very raw emotion. I was able to draw on my own experiences of this, but it was painful to do so. I think the important thing is to be honest about the way the bereaved and the lost feel. Will has had so much grief in his life that he can let it in and get on with what he needs to do. Dariusz tries to shut it out, but he can’t. It leads him to take crazy risks--he can’t stand his own feelings so he does some not very sensible things because he can’t bear to sit still and remember.

The book deals with some traumatic events, and I think, if I’ve done my job and engaged readers sufficiently with the characters and the narrative, then they will find some of the working out of the story traumatic too.

AK: As a reviewer, one has to be able to distinguish cliché from convention. So I must ask: Did you have concern that one of the pivots this plot rests upon is the investigation of a suicide that may be murder? In the real world, we know that many suicides, especially those related to geopolitics, hide secrets from the public.

DR: I wasn’t sure, when Ania first died, if this was suicide or murder. My thoughts became clearer as I followed Will’s investigation, and the police investigation. I realized more and more that Ania’s death was a lot more complicated than it seemed, whether it was murder, suicide, or accident. You have to follow where the plot goes, and hope you can manage to avoid any possible cliché. I hope I have managed this--but readers will let me know!

AK: There is very interesting social commentary interwoven into your fast-moving plot. Do you ever fear that the underlying theme or message in a work of fiction, especially one casting an eye on contemporary issues, risks stepping over the line that is “entertainment”?

DR: I’ve been told that my books are very dark. I sometimes wonder if they are too dark. It’s hard to know how to lighten them--maybe I should crack a joke of two on the way. Or maybe not, come to think of it. I like to ask readers to look at other people’s lives from different perspectives. I don’t want to move away from the story, but I want to tell the stories. Several people told me that one of the things they liked about The Forest of Souls was that it told them things they didn’t know. If you, as a writer, can work these things into the narrative--and they seem to weave themselves in naturally--then I think it all works as a book, as a story. My main aim is to write something people will read and enjoy.

AK: The Last Room tackles a number of currently topical issues, among them war crimes, asylum seekers, and moral panic over Operation Yewtree, the British police investigation of sexual abuse by the late media personality, Jimmy Saville, and others. Do these concerns in the book reflect your own concerns, or were they spawned by the tale you had constructed in your imagination?

DR: They were all an integral part of the story, but I suppose that arose originally from my own concerns. When I was starting to find the threads of the story--my starting point was a woman who had destroyed her own career and professional reputation by falsifying evidence in a court case--I had to ask why someone would do this, and what was happening. I first saw Will as a solitary man living on the east coast of Scotland and I wondered why he was isolating himself like this. I think the answers to these questions were drawn from my own experience and concerns, and in the past few years, some of these issues have been very central to my life.

AK: You are a former chair of the UK Crime Writers’ Association, having served back in the days when e-books were still an experiment, rather than a cultural trend. Can you tell us what you think about the changing modern publishing environment?

DR: It’s a very challenging time to be a writer as I’m sure lots of writers have told you. It’s also exciting--there are so many routes into publishing now. At the moment it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Self-publishing is now financially accessible and several professional writers have taken this up. Some debut writers have used this as a route into publishing. The problem with this is the quality control has gone and the reader is left with a bewildering array of books and no guidance. The market will probably sort it out.


Historical mystery novelist Michael Jecks poses on the left, with Reah. (Photograph by Ali Karim.)

People dream about the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, when an independently published book makes a fortune. But this is rarer than hen’s teeth (if you’ll allow me one cliché). I would never discourage anyone from self-publishing if the established publishing industry won’t give them a way in, but I would ask them to look coldly and critically at their book, and to get some unbiased feedback. Too many badly written and poorly edited books are out there now. It isn’t just independently published books, sadly. The professional editor is slowly disappearing from the trade. I was very lucky to be edited by one of the best in the business for my first six books and I learned a tremendous amount. It was hard, but worth it.

AK: And your thoughts on the recent Amazon vs. Hachette war?

DB: Amazon has changed the world of bookselling. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I regret the demise of the Net Book Agreement. This squeezed so-called mid-list writers out of the market, which reduced variety. Small booksellers--who are the people who keep the market lively and buoyant--are a vanishing breed. At the moment, Amazon has too much power, but it’s power we, the readers, have given it.

On the other hand, it is Amazon that has allowed small publishers to flourish. The big booksellers also abuse their power. Very few readers realize that those tempting piles of books on displays are not bookshop recommendations based on the shop’s opinion of their quality--they are paid-for promotions. And this makes it hard for small publishers who can’t pay this kind of money and sometimes can’t get their books into the shops at all. At one time, an author who couldn’t get his or her books into [W.H.] Smith or Waterstones was dead. Amazon has changed that. Of course, small publishers still have to fight to get their books into the bookstores. The result? Every branch of Waterstones or Smith’s is identical to every other branch. If I want variety, I go into the wonderful London Review Bookshop when I’m in London, and some of the surviving independents when I am in the north.

So Amazon isn’t Satan, as it is sometimes portrayed. But Amazon shouldn’t be trying to force the price of books down any further. Writers, oddly enough, need to live. The next big thing will be along one day, and will do to Amazon what Amazon has done to the big booksellers--they will need reader and writer loyalty.

AK: A well-known crime-fiction author remarked recently (and without a particular agenda) that it seemed to him many writers from other genres, as well as general fiction authors, have recently been dipping their toes more and more into the once-sniffed-at crime/thriller field. Do you have any thoughts on this development?

DB: Yes, I suppose it could be seen as an easy way to get a bestseller. I’m sure I would do the same if I were in that position. I have read one or two of these books, and found them to be at the very least readable, which is what you would expect given the quality of some of these writers. Good writers write good books. What I don’t like is the subtext (it doesn’t come from writers, it comes from a certain section of the world of critics and commentators) that “quality” writers are showing crime writers how to do it.

Genre fiction of all types has a range--from the formulaic, fast-written thriller (and don’t knock that--it’s not an easy thing to do) to books that have the depth and complexity of many so-called literary writers. The late and much lamented Reginald Hill wrote some books that were multi-layered and subtle (ignore the TV versions--the books are where the quality lies). John Harvey writes books that are about a lot more than the crime that may be central to the narrative. I could go on.

I have twice been faced with the “genre” smear (in the sense that the literary establishment thinks that genre fiction writers are a sub-species). Once I went for an interview for a writer-in-residence post, and one of the panel, a nationally known poet, sat through the interview with a “bad smell” expression on his face and asked me how I would cope with criticism from students that I wrote crime. The other--again in academia--was when someone asked me (very nicely) if I’d ever thought about writing a proper book. I said I wasn’t clever enough to do that.

AK: We all know that the crime, mystery, and thriller sector is a vibrant one in today’s book-publishing market. As I have with many other writers in this genre, let me ask you what you think it is about this genre that appeals most to readers.

DB: That’s so hard to answer. I’m a reader, and I know I’m looking for a good story. This can range from a light, engaging read (for a plane journey, maybe, or for reading after a grueling work period) to a book that will engage me deeply and perhaps disturb me. I think crime offers that range far more than any genre. I think we all like to read about rules being broken--and there’s nothing like a good fright from time to time.

AK: How hard is it nowadays to make one’s career as a writer--a profession that admittedly has never seemed particularly “secure”?

DB: It’s harder than ever now. To make my living as a writer I have to write articles, reviews, run workshops--and somehow find time to write as well. I think it is going to get worse. I’m currently looking at new outlets for stories, because I’ll always want to tell them, but I also need to make a living.

AK: What books are you currently composing?

DB: I’m working on a book that looks back to the last war in Eastern Europe, but which also looks forward to problems in the present day. The question that I’m asking is, if something looks like a good outcome, a happy ending, are you sure that’s the case? Is this what it appears to be? I have a young journalist who is on the track of a story--maybe she needs to be careful--and a man in search of the people who helped his family in wartime Poland--and maybe he needs to be careful too.

AK: Finally, what have you enjoyed reading lately?

DB: I’ve been re-reading some Agatha Christie--when she’s good, she’s very good. I recommend Five Little Pigs. I’ve also just read Invisible City, by Julia Dahl--we’ll hear more of this writer. It’s an excellent debut. I enjoyed M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine. It’s slow moving, but very absorbing. I thoroughly enjoyed John Harvey’s last [Charlie] Resnick novel, Darkness, Darkness.