Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Whitman Meets Dickens

Georgia college professor J. Aaron Sanders thought he was working with an improbable scenario when he concocted his first “Walt Whitman Mystery,” 2016’s Speakers of the Dead (Plume). But it turns out that renowned poet and journalist Whitman (1819-1892) was actually interested in crime-related fiction. As The New York Times reports, a novel originally serialized—with no author credit—in the New York Sunday Dispatch newspaper during the spring of 1852, was found in 2016 by a University of Houston (Texas) graduate student named Zachary Turpin, and properly attributed to Whitman.
The 36,000-word “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered last summer by a graduate student, is being republished online on Monday by The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in book form by the University of Iowa Press. A quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures, it features a villainous lawyer, virtuous Quakers, glad-handing politicians, a sultry Spanish dancer and more than a few unlikely plot twists and jarring narrative shifts.

“This is Whitman’s take on the city mystery novel, a popular genre of the day that pitted the ‘upper 10 thousand’—what we would call the 1 percent—against the lower million,” said David S. Reynolds, a Whitman expert at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
“City mysteries”—in which, according to Wikipedia, “characters explore the secret underworlds of cities and reveal corruption and exploitation, depicting violence and deviant sexuality”—won many readers in Europe and the United States during the 19th century. Examples of the genre include George Lippard’s The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845) and Eugène Sue’s giant The Mysteries of Paris (1842), which was republished by Penguin Classics in 2015.

The University of Iowa Press Web site explains that scholar Turpin came across the “sole surviving copy” of Jack Engle while he was following a paper trail “deep into the Library of Congress.” He told the Times that this tale is “‘rollicking, interesting, beautiful, beautiful and bizarre,’ with antic twists, goofy names and suddenly revealed conspiracies that recall ‘a pre-modern Thomas Pynchon’ or even, he ventured, ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.’”

Carrying the full title Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; A Story of New York at the Present Time in Which the Reader Will Find Some Familiar Characters, UI Press’ 180-page release of Whitman’s yarn features an introduction by Turpin. Amazon lists both hardcover and paperback editions as being available.

READ MORE:Grad Student Discovers a Lost Novel Written by Walt Whitman,” by Glen Weldon (National Public Radio).

Monday, February 20, 2017

Bullet Points: Presidents’ Day Edition

Sorry for the recent paucity of posts on this page, but my free time lately has been devoted in large part to a major reorganization of my books. When I undertook this task, I imagined it would demand less time and effort than it has—moving volumes around my house, cleaning all of the shelves, integrating works previously stored in boxes into the existing arrangement of titles, and culling out books that I’ve decided need to be in someone else’s collection. I’m now about 95 percent of the way through this project, with a few more days still to go. But I decided to take today off and write, instead. Which brings me to these crime-fiction-related subjects worth sharing …

• As has been reported elsewhere, Swedish writer and reformed criminal-turned-criminal rehabilitation authority Börge Hellström has passed away from cancer at age 59. With journalist Anders Roslund, Hellström penned more than half a dozen thrillers, among them The Beast (2005), Cell 8 (2011), Three Seconds (2010), and the upcoming UK release, Three Minutes (Riverrun). In 2010, Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim conducted an excellent interview with Roslund and Hellström. You’ll find Part I of their exchange here, and Part II here.

Yours truly at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco, flanked by best-selling Swedish novelists Börge Hellström, on the left, and Anders Roslund. (Photo © Ali Karim)

• Justine Browne, daughter of Ned Kelly Award-winning Australian crime novelist Marshall Browne, e-mailed me recently with the news that prior to her father’s demise in 2014, he’d completed work on a fourth installment in his much-lauded series starring false-legged Inspector Anders of the Rome police force. “I have worked with his editor and most recent publisher to have it published in Australia in December 2016,” Justine explained. Titled Inspector Anders and the Prague Dossier, this latest novel is currently available only Down Under, from Australian Scholarly Publishing. Justine adds, though, that “I am very much hoping to work on getting it published in the U.S. and UK in the future.” Browne’s previous Anders novels were The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders (1999), Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools (2002), and Inspector Anders and the Blood Vendetta (2007).

• An obituary of Richard Schickel, the former Time magazine film critic who passed away this last weekend at age 84, contains his brilliant response to “an article in The New York Times whose author had written, ‘Some publishers and literary bloggers’ view the shrinkage of book reviewing in many of the nation’s leading newspapers ‘as an inevitable transition toward a new, more democratic literary landscape where anyone can comment on books.’” Schickel opined:
Let me put this bluntly, in language even a busy blogger can understand: Criticism—and its humble cousin, reviewing—is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions of a book (or any other cultural object). It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmmaker’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.
I’m thinking of taping that quote above my computer screen.

• A couple of podcasts that are worth your attention: The second episode of Writer Types features interviews with authors Joe R. Lansdale, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Jess Lourey, as well as short fiction from Erik Arneson; while in the 17th episode of Two Writers and Microphone, oft-playful hosts Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste talk with Adrian McKinty and guest reviewer Kate Moloney.

• I was an enthusiastic watcher of made-for-TV movies during the 1970s and ’80s, so am pleased to see the Crime Film and TV Café hosting its “first annual Movie of the Week Blogathon.” (Can something be considered “annual,” though, if it has only appeared once?) Included among the teleflicks under consideration are Gidget Grows Up (1969), Death Takes a Holiday (1971), Horror at 37,000 Feet (1973), and Strange Homecoming (1974).

• Speaking of TV films, Peter Hanson’s Every ’70s Movie blog pays tribute to That Certain Summer, a 1972 production starring Hal Holbrook, Hope Lange, and Martin Sheen that’s considered to be “the first made-for-TV movie to present homosexual characters as dignified protagonists.” It was written by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, the latter of whom told me during a 2010 interview that he’s quite proud to have found a spot for that controversial picture on ABC-TV during the illiberal Nixon era. “I still look back and say, that’s incredible,” Link said.

• Every ’70s Movie also reviews Cannon, the 1971 pilot film for William Conrad’s long-running CBS-TV series in which he played overweight Los Angeles gumshoe Frank Cannon. “Particularly because this pilot has such a fine supporting cast of versatile character actors, it’s unsurprising the movie connected well enough with audiences to trigger a series,” Hanson remarks. “But, still, the sheer laziness of the whole enterprise—this [detective]’s different, see, because he’s fat! There’s a reason they used to call TV a vast wasteland.”

• Did you know that there was only one color episode shot of the original Perry Mason television series? Titled “The Case of the Twice Told Twist,” it aired originally on February 27, 1966. Blogger Rick29 observes that while the color photography “doesn't add anything to Perry Mason, it’s still fun for the show’s fans to learn, for example, that the familiar courtroom walls are gray.”

The New York Times notes that in the frightening age of Donald Trump, bookstores have become meeting places and coordinating centers for the political opposition. Explains Julie Boseman:
Political organizing is perhaps a natural extension of what bookstores have done for centuries: foster discussion, provide access to history and literature, host writers and intellectuals.

“All bookstores are mission-driven to some degree—their mission is to inspire and inform, and educate if possible,” said Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights in San Francisco, a store with a long history of left-wing activism.

“When Trump was elected, everyone was just walking around saying: ‘What do I do. What do we do?’” she added. “One of the places you might find some answers is in books, in histories, in current events, even poetry.”
• While we’re on the subject of political resistance, it should be noticed out that Ben H. Winters, author of Underground Airlines and World of Trouble, has contributed to Slate’s “Trump Story Project,” which “imagine[s] the dystopian future of Trump’s America.” Winters’ predictably grim-edged tale is titled “Fifth Avenue.”

• The Spy Command, which just a few days ago remarked on “long-term issues confronting the [James Bond film] franchise” (including financial problems for its longtime home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), now picks up on rumors that the 25th Bond picture “may film in Dubrovnik, Croatia.”

• Oh, and the same site highlights calculations that “Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond is now second-longest,” following Roger Moore’s time playing Ian Fleming’s protagonist in the film series. Those judgments, explains Spy guy Bill Koenig, are “based on the date each Bond actor was announced publicly.” Until recently, Pierce Brosnan (GoldenEye) had held the No. 2 spot. Sean Connery, the first big-screen 007, has now fallen to fourth place in this assessment.

• B.V. Lawson recently mentioned that ABC-TV’s “magician FBI drama pilot Deception has found its lead in Jack Cutmore-Scott, who takes on the role of superstar magician Cameron Black. When his career is ruined by scandal, Black has only one place to turn to practice his art of deception, illusion, and influence—the FBI.” Let’s see if Cutmore-Scott can be any more successful with the prestidigitator-turned-investigator concept than Bill Bixby was with his own undervalued, 1973-1974 drama, The Magician.

Also from Lawson’s In Reference to Murder:
Finland-U.S.-based Snapper Films has unveiled a new TV series, Sherlock North. It’s based on a Conan Doyle short story where Sherlock Holmes travels to Scandinavia after faking his own death and is on the run from nemesis Professor Moriarty. Under a false identity—an explorer named Sigerson—Holmes settles in dark and cold Lapland, in northern Finland, sparking a culture clash between the upper-class, fast-talking and eccentric Brit and the down-to-earth Nordic characters.
One hundred and thirty years after his first print appearance (in A Study in Scarlet), it seems Arthur Conan Doyle’s “consulting detective” still hasn’t lost his appeal.

So how did Sherlock Holmes get his moniker?

• Check out these three interviews: MysteryPeople talks with K.J. Howe about her debut novel, The Freedom Broker; S.W. Lauden quizzes Steph Post, author of the intriguing new Lightwood; and Crime Fiction Lover interrogates Chris Ould, whose second Detective Jan Reyna novel, Killing Bay, is finally reaching British bookshops.

• You knew Playboy’s no-nudes policy couldn’t last, right?

• And The Bookseller says that “Swedish publisher Norstedts has revealed the title for the fifth installment in the Millennium series created by Stieg Larsson as The Man Who Hunted/Chased His Shadow (Mannen Som Sökte Sin Sugga).” Like 2015’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, this new Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist thriller will be composed by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz. There’s no word yet on the plot of this novel—which will be published by the UK’s MacLehose Press in September under a less-unwieldy English title—but Lagercrantz says “the idea for the fifth book struck him on a family holiday.” Does that mean we’re in for The Girl in the Bloody Bikini or The Girl with an Umbrella in Her Drink? One’s mind reels at the possibilities …

White House Whodunits

While many thousands of Americans across the country are expected to commemorate this Presidents’ Day by participating in “Not My President’s Day” protests against Donald Trump’s deceitful and increasingly authoritarian ways, others might be more inclined to settle in for hours of quiet holiday reading. For their benefit, Janet Rudolph has reposted this annually expanding catalogue of mystery and thriller novels featuring U.S. chief executives. Included are books focused around John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln; a longer list involving kidnappings, assassination attempts, and election fixing; and a handful of stories in which presidents assume sleuthing roles.

READ MORE:Happy President’s Day to the Most Famous Lawyer/Thriller-Writer In History (It’s Not Who You Think),” by Barry Lancet and Anthony Franze (Criminal Element); “FDR and the Vanishing Millionaire,” by J. Kingston Pierce (The Rap Sheet).

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Book You Have to Read: “Angels,”
by Denis Johnson

(Editor’s note: This is the 145th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
In Denis Johnson’s white-trash road novel, Angels (1983), Jamie is on the run from an abusive husband, and Bill Houston, a violent, middle-aged blackout-drunk, is on the run from himself. It should come as no surprise that they share their journey to the dark side; and it’s no jaw-dropper, either, to see that much more is moving this narrative along than a belly full of booze and the boiling-over of low-life desperation.

The trip starts in Oakland, California’s Greyhound Bus station, and it doesn’t take long for the two born losers—she with “make-up too thick, her pants too tight,” and two babies in tow; and he, with a “pencil-thin mustache that just made her ill”—to bond over warm beer and wisecracks. Jamie gets roped in by Houston’s scoundrelish charms and ditches her plans to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania. Houston, it’s quickly seen, possesses no plans whatsoever. From that point onward, the belching bus is heading downhill and the brakes have failed. But, because of the prose and literary technique of this philosophically bent noir, it’s oh so lovely to watch.

Anything that can go wrong on this steerage-class odyssey, does. Jamie and Houston’s relationship, as haphazard and random as it is, is tested over and over again, and for some reason, to their detriment, it holds together. The couple is separated in Pittsburgh; Jamie is drugged and raped in Chicago; Houston robs a hardware store, drinks, and screws up until fate finally slaps them both in the face by reuniting them. Houston’s luck—or decision-making ineptitude—comes to a dead end as they alight in the thematically insinuating city of Phoenix, Arizona, his hometown.

It’s here that Houston’s two siblings, plus an acquaintance with the country-western-sounding name of Dwight Snow (“a scholar of armed robbery,” it so happens), plan to rob a bank. But, uh-oh: Houston notices that Snow’s baseball cap is lined with aluminum foil, the universal symbol of a crackpot. Snow should have removed the foil and gotten in touch with a higher power, one who’d have tipped him off to cancel this caper, but these good ol’ boys want one thing—“Money right or wrong,” and wrong it is, beyond their worst nightmares.

Angels, Johnson’s first novel (he went on to write 1986’s The Stars at Noon and 1987’s National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke, the latter of which resurrected Bill Houston), has the veneer of a straight-to-hell crime novel, but once into the guts of the book, it becomes apparent that Johnson wanted to entertain grad students as well, which is not atypical of a serious artist. The author is also a prolific poet as well as a playwright, and the innovation and originality of language in Angels is obvious: the locutions are fresh and bright, and they resound with a ring of truth that will never tarnish or erode. In the cheap motels where the wandering couple stop, there is “bedding that smelled of sorrow”; Houston’s Oklahoman mother was “unshakably hillbilly”; and in the cheap neighborhood that is Houston’s home in Phoenix, “everything was made of attempted marble.”

Johnson channels his inner-Nabokov to create narrative plot points and observations that display “the kind of coincidence that poets love and logicians hate,” which all add up to support a theme of death and rebirth that is just about screamed at the end of this 34-year-old novel. A line of poetry is the clue, and it’s inscribed in the gas chamber, allowing the condemned at the last minute to see, but probably not understand, that their death is a component of the natural order of the world and that perhaps some good will result from it.

The slice of poetry—“Death is the mother of beauty”—comes from Wallace Stevens. Its meaning is not for Bill Houston to understand, but for the benefit of readers alone. It implies karmic quid pro quo: In this case, evil for good.

It’s ironic that while Houston is a directionless alcoholic who’s none too bright, he does have moments of clarity. Earlier in the book he confronts the condition of his life and, “without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside there was a move he could make to change his life, to become another person, but he’d never be able to guess what it was.” Now that he’s “going up the pipe,” he must know what that move is—death—and he sentenced himself when he murdered a bank guard during the botched robbery.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Mayo Spreads the Love

(Editor’s note: Michael Mayo is the North Carolina-based author of three books set in New York City during the Prohibition era of the 1920s: Jimmy the Stick [2012], Everybody Goes to Jimmy’s [2015], and last year’s Jimmy and Fay. All of those star Jimmy Quinn, a hobbled tough guy who has a reputation as his city’s “only honest bagman.” In addition to his work as a novelist, Mayo has written about film for The Washington Post and The Roanoke Times, and he had hosting duties on the nationally syndicated Movie Show on Radio and Max and Mike on the Movies. Below, he recalls some of his most prominent storytelling influences.)

I discovered John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels as a high-school student. They showed me that escapism could have an underlying serious purpose. In the years since, I have reread most of those books and now understand just how good they are. As suspense fiction, as social commentary, as observation of the human condition, as insightful portraits of complex characters, they have not aged a day.

As a graduate student, I lucked into a literature course on tough-guy writers taught by Richard Dillard (The First Man on the Sun, The Book of Changes). It introduced me to Horace McCoy, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and, particularly, Ross Macdonald. It was the first class I had that treated works of entertainment as something worthy of study.

I was living in Roanoke, Virginia, then. Downtown there was a wonderful place, the Flying Eagle Coin Shop. Despite the name, it was mostly a used-paperbacks store. It had no conventional shelves. All the books were set out—spine up—on long dusty tables in two vast, poorly lighted rooms. The thing was, the books were in absolutely no order. You’d find best-sellers intermixed with ’50s mysteries, Harlequin romances, and the most lurid porn. I’ve still got the copy of A Man Called Spade that I bought there. Damn, it was wonderful!

But I digress.

The next writer who really opened my eyes was Ross Thomas. I came across The Fools in Town Are on Our Side in a public library, and immediately thereafter read everything of his that I could get my hands on. When I met him years later, he was as smart, dryly funny, and generous as I thought he’d be. If there is a single American crime writer who’s ripe for rediscovery, it’s Ross Thomas.

I could say the same of Donald E. Westlake. My first encounter with him was in another used-books store where I found a copy of The Hunter, written under his Richard Stark pseudonym. That book really got to me and I tracked down the sequel, The Man With the Getaway Face, still one of my favorite titles ever.

(Right) Author Michael Mayo

Those are the writers I have read, reread and learned from, but if I’m going to talk about direct influences on the Jimmy Quinn novels, I’ve got to name three men—Lawrence Sanders, Walter Mosley, and Elmore Leonard.

I read Leonard’s The Hot Kid and learned a lot. It’s a perfect example of using period details sparingly. In that book, they’re the seasoning, not the sauce.

Sanders’ “big” book, The First Deadly Sin, is a masterpiece that’s also overdue for rediscovery, but for my purposes, it’s his Archy McNally books that are important. For those who may be unfamiliar with them, Archy is an investigator who specializes in “discreet inquiries” for his father’s West Palm Beach law firm. When it comes to detective work, Archy is more boulevardier than bulldog. He’s forever zipping about in his Miata, taking great relish in food and drink and decking himself out in fancy outfits that seldom include socks.

It’s Archy’s voice that makes those books so enjoyable. He’s cheerful, literate, and lighthearted without being silly. As Archy once put it, “I mean, I wasn’t even serious about not being serious, if you follow me.” Even if you have no interest in the dirty doings of Florida’s bluebloods and nouveau riche, Archy is such a companionable narrator that his stories are well worth a second look.

I’ve tried to give Jimmy some of that easygoing charm, but I also want him to have a sharper edge. For that, I turned to Walter Mosley’s Mouse, first introduced in Devil in a Blue Dress (and perfectly played on film by Don Cheadle).

Even though Easy Rawlings is Mosley’s protagonist, his friend Mouse can be counted on to kick-start the action. In almost any confrontation, Mouse will commit a surprising act of violence. It shocks the reader, but to Mouse, it makes sense.

Jimmy isn’t nearly as cold-blooded as Mouse, but he has the same capacity for sudden effective physical action when it’s needed.

If I can’t be that decisive in real life, Jimmy can.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 2-12-17

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Bibliognosts Have Their Say

The British Crime Writers’ Association has announced its longlist of contenders for the 2017 Dagger in the Library prize, given “for a body of work by a crime writer that users of libraries particularly admire.” According to a news release, “The CWA revised the 2017 Dagger in the Library format so that, uniquely among crime writing awards, only library staff were able to nominate authors. Nominations were received from 175 libraries across the UK and Ireland—with 110 authors suggested as worthy winners.” Of those, here are the 10 semifinalists:

Alison Bruce
Kate Ellis
Chris Ewan
Tana French
Mari Hannah
Brian MacGilloway
James Oswald
C.J. Sansom
Andrew Taylor
Nicola Upson

I don’t see any word yet on when a shortlist of contenders for this commendation might be announced, but I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for that news. Past recipients of the Dagger in the Library include Christopher Fowler, Sharon Bolton, Alexander McCall Smith, Stephen Booth, Belinda Bauer, Mo Hayder, Stuart MacBride, Peter Robinson, and last year’s winner, Elly Griffiths.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Turn an Ear to These Texts

The Audio Publishers Association has announced the finalists for its 2017 Audie Awards, “recognizing distinction in audiobooks and spoken word entertainment.” There are 26 categories of nominees, but two likely to be of the greatest interest to Rap Sheet readers:

Crimson Shore, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, narrated by Rene Auberjonois (Hachette Audio)
The Crossing, by Michael Connelly, narrated by Titus Welliver (Hachette Audio)
A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny, narrated by Robert Bathurst (Macmillan Audio)
The Heavens May Fall, by Allen Eskens, narrated by R.C. Bray,
David Colacci and Amy McFadden (Tantor Media)
IQ, by Joe Ide, narrated by Sullivan Jones (Hachette Audio)

Cross Justice, by James Patterson, narrated by Ruben Santiago Hudson and Jefferson Mays (Hachette Audio)
The Fall of Moscow Station, by Mark Henshaw, narrated by
Eric G. Dove (Dreamscape Media)
Hidden Bodies, by Caroline Kepnes, narrated by Santino Fontana (Simon & Schuster Audio)
Home, by Harlan Coben, narrated by Steven Weber (Brilliance)
The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons, narrated by James Patrick Cronin (Brilliance)

Two other crime/mystery works are vying in the general fiction category: Darktown, by Thomas Mullen, narrated by Andre Holland (Simon & Schuster Audio); and End of Watch, by Stephen King, narrated by Will Patton (Simon & Schuster Audio).

This year’s Audie winners will be announced during a June 1 event at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York City. “For the second year in a row,” a news release explains, “award-winning comedian, author, and commentator Paula Poundstone will emcee …”

Congratulations to all of the contenders!

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Variations on a Theme

The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer, by Skip Hollandsworth (Henry Holt, 2016); The Black Hand: The Epic War Between a Brilliant Detective and the Deadliest Secret Society in American History, by Stephan Talty (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

READ MORE:Paramount Acquires The Black Hand for Leonardo DiCaprio to Star for the Gotham Group and Appian Way,” by Anita Busch (Deadline Hollywood).

Bloodshed by the Beach

Registration is still open for this year’s SleuthFest, to be held in Boca Raton, Florida, from February 23 to 26. As Mystery Fanfare explains, SleuthFest is “an intensive four-day conference featuring writing workshops, social events, and pitch sessions. SleuthFest includes four tracks of workshops, presentations, and panels on the craft of writing, business, traditional and self-publishing, marketing, and forensics. In addition, top literary agents and editors will be available to hear pitches from aspiring writers, offer troubleshooting sessions, and manuscript critiques.”

Guests this year will include authors David Baldacci (who’s taken on the responsibilities of keynote speaker), Jeff Lindsay, Reed Farrel Coleman, S.J. Rozan, Jane Cleland, Con Lehane, Jess Lourey, and Charles and Caroline Todd. As part of the weekend program, Forensic Guest of Honor Dr. Vincent DiMaio “will host an in-depth examination of the Black Dahlia case from 1940s Los Angeles.”

Taking part in SleuthFest will cost you $405 if you’re a member of the Mystery Writers of America; $445 if you’re not. Spouses and partners of attendees get in for $265 per person. To register, click here.

When Bad Typos Happen to Good People

I take what some people might characterize as inordinate delight in discovering typographical errors on book covers. (No doubt a consequence of my years as a magazine and newspaper editor.) So it was with a hearty laugh that I encountered one such typo on the rear side of an advance reader’s copy of Loren D. Estleman’s forthcoming short-story collection, Nearly Nero: The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe (Tyrus).

As anyone familiar with Rex Stout’s longest-practicing protagonist, Nero Wolfe, knows, that oversize but percipient New York City armchair sleuth was fond not only of fine comestibles and beer, but also of orchids. Wikipedia quotes Stout biographer John J. McAleer as explaining that “Wolfe spends four hours a day with his orchids. Clients must accommodate themselves to this schedule.” While the crime-solver could often be irritable, he derived great pleasure from raising and breeding orchids, and giving them away.

When it came time to pen the promo copy for the reverse of Nearly Nero, though, its writer must have been either tired or imbibing too heavily of beer himself. Its first paragraph begins as follows:
From 1934 until his death in 1975, Rex Stout entertained the world with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the eccentric, organ-breeding detective genius, as related by Archie Goodwin, the irreverent legman.
You can see a scan of that back cover by clicking here.

As talented as he was, I doubt that Wolfe ever engaged in medical experimentation. Presumably, then, the good folks at Tyrus Books will notice and correct this back-cover blunder long before Estleman’s book reaches print in May. But for now, I am keeping it on my desk to glance at whenever I need a chuckle to get me through the day.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Who’ll Take Home the Bronze?

It was just over three months ago that the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers made the announcement that Lisa Sandlin’s The Do-Right had won the 2015 Hammett Prize for “literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a U.S. or Canadian author.” Yet here we are again, with a brand-new list of IACW candidates, this time vying for the 2016 Hammett Prize.

As reported by Mystery Fanfare, these are the five nominees:

The Second Life of Nick Mason, by Steve Hamilton (Putnam)
The Drifter, by Nicholas Petrie (Putnam)
The White Devil, by Domenic Stansberry (Molotov Editions)
Revolver, by Duane Swierczynki (Mulholland)
The Big Nothing, by Bob Truluck (Murmur House)

This year’s Hammett winner is set to be declared during the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association’s Fall Conference, to be held in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, from October 6 to 8. As Mystery Fanfare notes, that victor “will receive a bronze trophy, designed by sculptor Peter Boiger.” Congratulations to all of the contenders!

Friday, February 03, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 2-3-17

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

Tailgating and Tale-Spinning

Although I shall spend this coming Sunday reorganizing my sizable personal library (a long-sought goal that seems to become more elusive, the longer I seek it), I know plenty of my fellow Americans will be tuning in to watch this year’s Super Bowl match-up between the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. Serious football enthusiasts are likely to devote most of that day to their favorite sport, gathering in front of their TV sets (or perhaps in the parking lot at Houston, Texas’ NRG Stadium) long before the first play is made. But others might find extra time in advance of the game, or need a bit of a change during commercial breaks or Lady Gaga’s halftime show, and want to do some reading. For their benefit, Mystery Fanfare’s Janet Rudolph has put together this list of Super Bowl-oriented crime fiction and other football-related mysteries.

READ MORE:Before the Super Bowl,” by Michael Carlson (London Review of Books Blog).

All Hail Deighton

British critic and raconteur Mike Ripley’s new “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots delivers a plump valentine to the upcoming BBC-TV miniseries SS-GB, based on Len Deighton’s 1978 “alternative history” thriller of that same title. After attending an exclusive preview of the drama’s first episode, which is scheduled to air in the UK later this month, Ripley opined: “[F]rom the opening ‘Spitfire scene’ it became clear this was going to be quality viewing. … The series, adapted by the scriptwriters of Skyfall and Spectre, is essentially a five-hour big-screen movie, but one which eschews CGI [computer-generated imagery] for close hand-held camera work in and around a very solid London. The other bonus is that the leading German characters are played by excellent German actors.”

Elsewhere in that same column, Ripley calls Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, “an absolutely cracking thriller”; recounts his weather woes at the launch party for Sirens, by debut author Joseph Knox; remembers Anthony Berkeley Cox (1893-1971), who is “perhaps best known today for his classic Malice Aforethought”; and touts soon-to-be-released works such as Brad Parks’ Say Nothing, C.J. Carver’s Tell Me a Lie, and “Seas of Snow, a debut psychological thriller by former BBC producer Kerensa Jennings.”

You’ll find (and should enjoy) the whole piece here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Wrapping It Up in Fine Style

It’s always hard to predict how The Rap Sheet’s annual Best Crime Fiction Cover competition will shake out. 2015, for instance, brought significant disparities in the number of votes received by what turned out to be the top three book jackets and their raft of rivals. This year—the ninth time the blog has sought what is admittedly an unscientific consensus on book design—the spread wasn’t quite so dramatic. Yet there was still a trio of novel fronts that attracted the greatest attention and acclaim from our readers.

Because of ballot-stuffing antics the last time around, I changed the polling procedures for 2016. Instead of allowing everyone to cast votes for as many covers as they wished, as often as they wanted, I restricted participants to a single chance at choosing their favorites from among 12 nominees; however, they were allowed to register their support of more than one cover on that sole occasion. Although this led to a reduction in the total vote count (as recorded by Polldaddy) from last year’s completely abnormal high of 6,941 to a more typical 1,067, I believe it was a fairer method of collective judgment.

With all of that background conveyed, let me now move on to announcing our five winners for 2016. (You can click on any of the images below to open enlargements.)

Earning first-place honors with a fairly decisive 233 votes (or 21.84 percent of the total) is … Razor Girl (Knopf), the 14th amusing crime novel for adults penned solely by Florida journalist and author Carl Hiaasen. Here’s how I described that book’s story line last August in a fall preview column for Kirkus Reviews:
One can only marvel at Carl Hiaasen’s consistent ability to turn outlandish plot ingredients into bewitching fiction. His latest novel, Razor Girl, begins when Tinseltown talent agent Lane Coolman, wheeling his rental car from Miami, Florida, to Key West—where he’s planning to tighten the reins on Buck Nance, the unpredictable star of a redneck reality-TV series called Bayou Brethren—is rear-ended by pretty young Merry Mansfield, whose attention to the roadway had apparently wavered while she gave herself a bikini shave in the driver’s seat of a Firebird. Turns out, Merry is a serial crash-scam perpetrator, and she and her partner kidnap Coolman, having mistaken him for a beach-repair contractor whose bamboozling behavior has put him on the wrong side of a local criminal bigwig. Without Coolman’s guidance, Nance manages to launch into a racist public rant that inspires a psychotic would-be apprentice and leaves the TV star a suspect in a front-page homicide. Meanwhile, disgraced sheriff Andrew Yancy (from Bad Monkey) thinks he can restore his reputation by solving the aforementioned murder—with a bit of help from the Razor Girl herself, scheming Merry.
Razor Girl’s cover illustration and design represent the first-rate talents of Mark Matcho, with art direction by Alfred A. Knopf’s Carol Carson. According to this brief biographical note, Matcho is a Pasadena, California, resident who’s “been an illustrator since 1985, or thereabouts,” and whose work “appears regularly in Esquire, Los Angeles, and BusinessWeek, among many other fine publications.” You can appreciate more of his artistry at the portfolio site Illoz.

Matcho’s cover for Hiaasen’s book, showing a slender young woman in a bikini top and jeans shorts, riding a giant straight razor, is certainly eye-catching when faced outwards on bookstore shelves. It’s particularly so because of its bright yellow background. Yet that front is very much in keeping with the “signature style” of this author’s books for Knopf. There’s a comic-book character to these covers, which Matcho—who also created the dust-jackets for two previous Hiaasen titles, Bad Monkey and Dance of the Reptiles: Selected Columns—has no trouble replicating. The challenge in following such a pattern, observed author Zoë Sharp in a comment on the announcement of this year’s cover tournament, is to make each new book wrapper in the series “just familiar enough that the reader can spot [it] on the shelf, but not so familiar they think it’s something they’ve already read.”

My guess is that both Hiaasen fans and newcomers to his oeuvre recognized Razor Girl for the fresh—and predictably funny—offering it was.

The greatest amount of jockeying for position in this year’s covers contest was between Razor Girl and a quite different work: Todd Moss’ latest thriller, Ghosts of Havana (Putnam). Moss’ tale achieved an early and seemingly solid lead, but over the week-and-a-half polling period, it eventually slipped into second place, earning 183 votes (or 17.15 percent of the total). Ghosts is the third novel by Maryland writer Moss, who served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during George W. Bush’s administration, and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Like its predecessors, The Golden Hour (2014) and Minute Zero (2015), Ghosts stars college professor-turned-State Department crisis manager Judd Ryker. Of its plot, Publishers Weekly explained:
When four friends from the D.C. suburbs agree to go deep-sea fishing off Florida, two are unaware that one of them, a descendant of a Bay of Pigs invader, has a secret agenda; the fourth is in on the game. When their boat strays into Cuban waters and gets captured, Judd’s boss sends him to Havana, to run a back-channel operation to free the “Soccer Dad Four” before they become tokens in a political badminton game between the U.S. and Cuba. Meanwhile, Judd’s wife, Jessica, a former black-ops CIA agent, seeks out the guy who rented the fishing boat to the four Americans.
Interestingly, Ghosts of Havana reached print a little less than two years after U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro finally agreed—following a “54-year stretch of hostility”—to normalize relations between the two countries, and just six months after Obama became the first American chief executive to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge sailed there in 1928 to address the Pan-American Conference of Western Hemisphere leaders. As Moss writes in a prefatory note to Ghosts, Obama’s diplomatic triumph in the Caribbean “prov[ed] yet again that even the most intractable foreign policy logjams can break at any time.”

Also notable is that Moss’ novel carries the only straightforward photographic cover to find a spot among this year’s top five contenders. In response to an e-mail inquiry, Alexis Elmurr, a publicity assistant with Penguin Random House (the parent company of Putnam), told me that “the jacket of Ghosts of Havana was designed by Eric Fuentecilla, and the jacket photograph is credited to Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images.” Fuentecilla is an associate art director at Penguin, whose previous book façades include those of The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead (2000), and The Day the Leader Was Killed, by Naguib Mahfouz.

Ghosts’ dust cover combines a beautifully lighted nighttime street in what I presume is Havana—its buildings mirrored in the wet pavement—with an elegant title combining sans serif and serif typefaces, both of which appear distressed, as if reflecting the romantically disheveled nature of the Cuban capital. Fuentecilla’s effort here definitely makes me want to follow his designs in the future.

Despite Thomas Mullen being American—a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, in fact—his fourth novel, the historical murder mystery Darktown, was released in Great Britain (by publisher Abacus) a full seven months before it reached U.S. bookstores. And while the latter edition’s cover (fashioned by Laywan Kwan for Atria/37 INK) conveys a suspenseful air, the UK version puts forward a more thought-provoking countenance. Created by Craig Fraser, a freelance graphic designer in London (who has also produced fronts for yarns by Michael Connelly, Viet Thanh Nguyen, John Lescroart, and others), it takes a vintage, sepia-toned photograph of Atlanta, turns it 90 degrees, and uses the city’s irregular skyline to echo the ugly racial divide that Mullen explores in Darktown, reversing the title type to show up best on either side of that border. Darktown was one of my favorite crime novels of 2016, as it was among the top picks of Rap Sheet contributor Kevin Burton Smith. And it became the third-place finisher in this year’s best-cover rivalry, scoring 86 votes (or 8.06 percent of the total).

Here’s my Kirkus Reviews plot synopsis of Mullen’s novel, which is set in the Georgia capital in 1948:
Darktown introduces Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, two of the city’s eight newly employed black police officers. They’re supposed to patrol only “colored neighborhoods” and leave any investigations to their paler brethren. Yet abiding by those restrictions becomes difficult, after this pair witness a Buick plow into a lamppost, and then fail to prevent the inebriated white driver from wheeling away into the night beside a battered young black woman. When that female passenger’s corpse is later discovered, Boggs and Smith want to figure out what happened. But they must do so covertly, lest they enrage the force’s “real” members, one of whom—a corrupt and violent white supremacist—will do almost anything to purge his department of its latest hires.
Darktown is the opening entry in a new series from Mullen. Its sequel, Lightning Men, is due out in the States in September. I have not seen a notice yet that there will be a separate, British edition of the book. But if there is, I hope Fraser will be assigned to fabricate its jacket: I’d like to see what more he can come up with.

In addition to Darktown, one other UK edition won placement on this year’s Best Covers roster: Beloved Poison (Constable), by E.S. “Elaine” Thomson, a Scottish fictionist and noted authority on the social history of medicine. The first installment in a succession of Victorian-era whodunits featuring Jem Flockhart, an androgynous young London apothecary, Beloved Poison finds our hesitant heroine investigating a cache of miniature coffins secreted in the 700-year-old London hospital at which she labors, while simultaneously probing the suspicious poisoning of a nonconformist physician who had served as a mentor to her. The British dust jacket, conceived by South Africa-born illustrator-artist Jordan Metcalf (with art direction from publisher Little, Brown’s Hannah Wood), is a meticulously detailed composition displaying items suggestive of Jem’s expertise—a skull, an old-fashioned syringe, herbs, bottles of medicine, etc.—around a highly stylized banner containing the book’s title in a decorative serif typeface. If you take a quick tour through Metcalf’s online portfolio, you will realize that he makes a specialty of custom lettering, so it is hardly surprising that the type fronting Thomson’s debut mystery should be its most engaging element.

That British cover of Beloved Poison—which I think superior to the U.S. edition (designed for Pegasus Books by Tim Green, a senior art director at Faceout Studio)—captured 82 votes in this year’s survey, or 7.69 percent of the total count. A sequel, Dark Asylum, set to go on sale in the UK in early March, boasts a similar design style.

Finally, completing our top-five list of vote-getters is The Far Empty (Putnam). Penned by J. Todd Scott, a real-life agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, this novel is set in America’s Southwest and builds around authoritarian Sheriff Stanford “Judge” Ross, who eschews the discovery of unidentified skeletal remains on his patch as likely belonging to either an “illegal” Mexican laborer or a drug runner—no one who demands much regard. However, his new deputy isn’t satisfied with leaving the matter unresolved; and Ross’ teenage son fears the bones might be those of his mother, who disappeared more than a year ago. Together, they’ll challenge Ross’ long-standing control and throw light on some well-concealed local secrets.

The Far Empty, Scott’s debut novel, collected 76 votes, or 7.12 percent of the total cast in this year’s survey. Its façade was created by Tim Lane, a St. Louis, Missouri-based illustrator and graphic novelist who claims to have been “influenced by comic books of the late 1940s and early 1950s, American mythology, and Dick Tracy comic strips.” From a distance, the dust jacket’s focal point is seen as a hand clutching a pistol. Only as one studies the image closer-up is it clear that the hand is skeletal, and that the gun is decorated with human skulls. This reminds me of a novel that won our Best Cover competition back in 2010, Shūichi Yoshida’s Villain, though in that case the gun on the front wasn’t just adorned with bones—it was made of bones.

So, congratulations to all of our 2016 winners! You can click here to see how this quintet of novel fronts stacked up against the remaining seven nominees. As usual, I was impressed by the caliber of contestants this year; all of them were standouts in the field, deserving of public acclaim and demonstrating that book designers haven’t lost their ability to amaze as well as delight. I’ve already begun gathering possible candidates for Best Crime Fiction Cover of 2017 distinction. If, between now and December, you espy any crime novel jackets you think are especially noteworthy, I’d be glad to hear about them. Simply drop me an e-mail note here.

READ MORE:Notable Book Covers of 2016,” by Dan Wagstaff (The Casual Optimist); “The Best Book Covers of 2016,” by Matt Dorfman (The New York Times); “BOLO Books’ Top Five Covers of 2016,” by Kristopher Zgorski (BOLO Books); “2016 Book Covers We Loved,” by Vyki Hendy and Eric Wilder (Spine); “32 of the Most Beautiful Book Covers of 2016,” by Jarry Lee (BuzzFeed).

Down but Not Out?

Oh no, here we are once more. In the on-again, off-again world of Plots With Guns, it seems … we’re off again. After calling it quits in the fall of 2014, and then resurrecting the acclaimed Webzine two years later, Plots editors have announced on Facebook that “we are suspending publication as of now. We deeply appreciate everyone who has written for us, submitted to us, and read PWG.” One hopeful note at the end of that post, though, suggests that Plots could be resurrected if somebody else takes up the reins. Send an e-mail note to pwgsubmissions@gmail.com if you’re interested.

Meanwhile, the PWG archives remain ready for your perusal here.

(Hat tip to In Reference to Murder.)

A Principled Stand

Canadian thriller writer Linwood Barclay announced yesterday in a piece for The Globe and Mail newspaper that he has cancelled his upcoming U.S. book tour due to Donald Trump’s “ill-conceived presidential executive order rooted in racism and ignorance suddenly bann[ing] entry to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries.” He added: “At this moment, entering Trump’s America feels akin to patronizing a golf course that excludes blacks, a health club that refuses membership to Jews.” One wonders whether other foreign authors will follow Barclay’s example.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Two TV Icons Depart the Stage

(Above) Mike Connors on the June 24, 1972, TV Guide.

What a dismal, discouraging last week we’ve all had to experience. While Donald Trump has done his damnedest, through one executive order after another, to undermine America’s values and leadership in the world, we’ve also witnessed the deaths of three Hollywood performers with ties to crime and mystery fiction.

First off, of course, there was 80-year-old Mary Tyler Moore, about whom I wrote here. But while Moore’s success really derived from her work in situation comedies rather than on TV crime dramas, the same cannot be said of Mike Connors, who died on Thursday at age 91. Born Krekor Ohanian in Fresno, California, on August 15, 1925, the Armenian-descended former college basketball standout appeared in several movies and did guest shots on small-screen programs such as Mr. and Mrs. North, City Detective, M Squad, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and Maverick before landing the lead in Tightrope! (1959–1960), playing a deep-undercover police officer charged with infiltrating criminal gangs. After that program was cancelled, and following Connors’ work in films such as Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die (1966), he returned to television as Joe Mannix, a notably hard-headed Los Angeles private eye, in the William Link/Richard Levinson-created CBS series Mannix (1967-1975). In its obituary of Connors, The New York Times recalled that
Unlike many a smooth TV private eye, Mannix took his lumps. The Washington Post, tabulating the wear and tear the character withstood over eight seasons, found that he had endured 17 gunshot wounds and 55 beatings that left him unconscious. …

“Mannix” made Mr. Connors one of the highest-paid television actors of the 1970s; by the end of its run he was earning $40,000 an episode (almost $180,000 in today’s dollars). The role brought him four Emmy Award nominations and a Golden Globe Award.

“Mannix” was also notable as one of the first regular series to provide a leading role to an African-American: Gail Fisher joined the show in its second season as Mannix’s secretary, frequent damsel in distress and occasional potential love interest. She died at 65 in 2000.

TV Guide issues of May 18, 1968, and October 31, 1970.

Meanwhile, in a 2014 retrospective of Mannix, Stephen Bowie wrote:
Likable but flinty, Connors was a tough guy who didn’t have to show off. An idealist and a nice guy, Mannix was perfectly willing to take on a lost little girl as a client and negotiate his fee in lunch money (never actually collected, of course). Connors had a rare sincerity that kept scenes like that from getting corny. (When cynical private-eye shows like Harry O and The Rockford Files made a point of their protagonists’ pragmatic eye for a buck, it was mainly Mannix they were rebuking.) Working out of a comfy Spanish-styled home office, dressed in plaid sport coats made out of fabric as thick as carpet, driving a snazzy muscle car painted a hideous shade of army-Jeep green, Joe Mannix was functional but square. It was all of a piece. Mannix was the audience’s uncle or its brother-in-law—that quiet, comforting fellow who never let on that he’d mowed down a whole squadron of advancing enemies during the war. (Joe’s actual back-story included service in Korea; another often-mocked TV trope, the one where the deranged vet returns to kill off all the members of his old platoon, comes more from Mannix than any other single show.) Mannix’s secretary, Peggy Fair, was cannily drawn to underscore his avuncular solidity. Played by Gail Fisher, one of the more prominent African-American actors on television at the time, Peggy was the widow of a cop, so naturally he’d never make a pass. She was also a single mother, which meant that the producers could show Mannix in surrogate dad mode whenever little Toby (Mark Stewart) turned up.
Unfortunately, after eight seasons on the air, Mannix (which TV blogger Mitchell Hadley says was, “next to The Rockford Files, … probably the most loved, most well-remembered P.I. show of the era”), was dropped from American prime-time viewing schedules, though it has continued to show up in syndication, and was released in DVD format between 2008 and 2012. Connors spent a few years after that doing teleflicks (such as 1980’s Casino) and filling guest spots on programs that included Police Story, before landing his last starring role in a TV crime drama: Today’s F.B.I., a 1981-1982 revamp of the original Efrem Zimbalist Jr. series, on which he played a “veteran ‘G-Man,’” Ben Slater, commanding a select group of agents.

He subsequently featured in shows such as The Love Boat, Murder, She Wrote, and a 1990s revival of Gene Barry’s Burke’s Law, and reprised his Mannix role in a 1997 episode of Diagnosis: Murder (which, at least for now, you can watch here). “All told,” says A.V. Club, “he ended his career with more than a hundred credits to his name, and worked steadily in the business for a total of 65 years.” According to the Times, Connors died on January 26, from “complications of leukemia, which had been diagnosed a week earlier.”

* * *

Just one day after word of Mike Connors’ passing, news broke that Barbara Hale—the striking actress best known for playing resourceful and highly observant secretary Della Street on Raymond Burr’s 1957-1966 series, Perry Mason—had died “peacefully” at her home in Sherman Oaks, California. She was 94 years old.

Born in DeKalb, Illinois, on April 18, 1922, Hale started her adulthood wanting to be an artist, and doing modeling work to pay for her education at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. The modeling attracted Hollywood’s interest. In his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts, Terence Towles Canote notes that Hale “signed a contract with RKO Radio Pictures. She made her film debut in 1943 in an uncredited, bit part in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day (1943).” He adds: “[I]t must be remembered that she had a highly successful film career prior to starting her long run on Perry Mason. She played opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, including Robert Mitchum in West of the Pecos (1945 film), Jimmy Stewart in The Jackpot (1951), James Cagney in A Lion Is in the Streets (1953), and Rock Hudson in Seminole (1953). She even received top billing in two films: The Window (1949) and Lorna Doone (1951). While many of us loved her as Della Street, she played so many more roles during her career.”

(Left) Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale on TV Guide, March 19, 1960.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, in the late 1950s, “Hale was mulling retirement to raise her three young children with her husband, actor Bill Williams (The Adventures of Kit Carson), when producer Gail Patrick Jackson approached her about playing Della on Perry Mason. She quickly accepted the gig when she discovered that Burr, her old friend from RKO, was going to star as the fictional defense attorney in the series based on the Erle Stanley Gardner mystery novels.” Hale is credited with participating in all 271 episodes of that CBS courtroom drama, opposite Burr, William Hopper (who played private detective Paul Drake), and William Talman (as persistently unsuccessful Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger). For her portrayal of Street, in 1959 Hale received an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series. A year later, she was immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Hale maintained her acting career after Perry Mason, appearing in big-screen pictures such as Airport (1970) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1975), and popping up on TV screens as a guest on Ironside (playing a murder suspect), Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., and The Greatest American Hero, which starred her son, William Katt. “In 198[5],” explains Canote, “she reprised her role as Della Street in the television reunion movie Perry Mason Returns alongside Raymond Burr in the title role. The TV movie proved so successful that there would be 26 more Perry Mason TV movies starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale.” In the first nine of those, Katt played P.I. Paul Drake Jr. (The original Drake, Hopper, had died in 1970.)

Reports are that Barbara Hale perished as a result of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In its obituary of the actress, The New York Times recalls that, despite having played one of the most memorable secretaries on television, Hale “never learned shorthand and could type only 33 words a minute.”

READ MORE:Mike Connors, an Appreciation” and “Mannix vs. Spies,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command); “Dinner with Perry and Della,”
by Max Allan Collins.

Hope for Better Times Ahead

Today just happens to be the first day of the Chinese New Year, 2017, which commences the Year of the Rooster. By way of celebrating, Mystery Fanfare’s Janet Rudolph has posted a surprisingly long list of crime and mystery novels associated with this occasion.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Story Behind the Story:
“Koreatown Blues,” by Mark Rogers

(Editor’s note: This is the 68th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s guest contributor is Mark Rogers, who lives most of each year in Baja California, Mexico, with his Sinaloa-born wife, Sophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Village Voice, and other publications, and his travel journalism has taken him on assignment to 54 countries. While Endeavour Press beat Brash Books to market with Rogers’ mystery novel Red Thread, the author considers Koreatown Blues—due out on February 1, from Brash—to be his debut novel. In addition to penning fiction, Rogers blogs at Pissing on My Pistols.)

* * *

The warm rain fell on a tin awning in Mexico. I waited, up against the building’s wall, staying dry. The pieces of my crime novel Koreatown Blues were all there. Waiting to be remembered and imagined …

Back in 2005, a screenplay of mine had been optioned by a major player, and I’d been signed to a hip literary management company. At age 55, I knew I was way past my sell-by date. Even so, nothing was going to stop me from making the move from New Jersey to Los Angeles and giving screenwriting a shot.

I told my wife, “If I don’t take this chance, you’ll end up with a bitter old man. I don’t want to be him, and believe me, you don’t want to be married to him.”

I drove cross-country and sublet a dark studio apartment in L.A.’s Koreatown. The apartment had only one window that looked out on a brick wall close enough to touch. It was ugly as hell but in reality, perfect conditions for a writer, fulfilling Henry Miller’s dictum: “Writers should be put in a prison cell and given only bread and water.”

The plan was for my family to join me in three months (in a bigger apartment). Instead, they refused to make the move. And I was too stubborn to return to New Jersey.

Divorce followed.

Every three days or so the loneliness of my apartment would get to me. On one of those nights I wandered into a Korean nightclub a few blocks from my apartment. When I ordered a Hite, the beer arrived with a cordless microphone and the request to sing “Yesterday.”

“As usual, I was the only white guy in the place.”

That’s the first line of my crime novel Koreatown Blues. And that’s the way it was. The Koreans accepted me at once, and it wasn’t long before I developed a crush on the barmaid, Sung. Her husband was in South Korea, having refused to make the move to the States, which mirrored my own situation. Sung worked full-time and took care of her two teenage kids. She told me that once a year she liked to go to the beach and stare at the horizon line.

Part of my affection for Sung was driven by my respect for her. When she arrived in L.A. from Seoul, she first worked as a taxi driver, which had to be daunting for a newcomer who didn’t speak English.

(Above) Author Mark Rogers

During my hopeful nights sitting at the bar, trying to connect with Sung, the life of the nightclub went on around me, a mix of B-girls, Korean gangsters, and ordinary Joes Korean-style.

One night, a dude at the bar got tired of eating his rice and started playing the drums on my head with his chopsticks, like a deranged Gene Krupa. When he wouldn’t stop, I told him, “You’re fuckin’ with John Wayne.” A fight was only averted when he sped out the door and disappeared into the night.

A middle-aged Korean man sat beside me at the bar and told me about his son who had died in infancy. Then, when the mike was passed to him, he sang “Tears in Heaven,” by Eric Clapton.

Another young Korean was in love with Sung and challenged me to a bout of arm wrestling. I beat him easily and he insisted we try it left-handed. I beat him again and he complained, “You should have let me win one.” My response was, “You’ve heard of ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do?’ Well, I’m from New Jersey.”

One cadaverous-looking Korean got up in the middle of the floor and sang an impassioned version of Celine Dion’s “Power of Love.” At song’s end he sat down beside me and pulled out an envelope from inside his shirt: X-rays showing his inoperable lung cancer.

While I loved every minute of this, I was also developing much more than a crush on Sung. I’d ask myself, “If L.A. is filled with women, why did you have to go and fall for a married, non-English-speaking Korean woman with two kids?”

All during this time, I had the feeling of being surrounded by a culture that would ultimately and always be alien to me.

The romance with Sung never ignited and the optioned screenplay sputtered out, even though the production company had invested $400,000. I eventually drifted out of L.A., all the way down to Mexico.

A few years later, standing under an awning in Baja California, waiting out the rain, a stray remark from those L.A. days bounced around in my head: “There are many ghost stories in Koreatown.” I pulled out my notebook and in a half-hour had the main story beats for Koreatown Blues, although my ghosts would be flesh and blood.

Koreatown Blues is the story of Wes—whose purchase of a car wash in L.A.’s Koreatown comes complete with a young Korean wife he’s never met. Wes soon learns her five previous husbands were murdered before the honeymoon and finds himself with a ring on his finger and a target on his back. Will he become the next victim of this centuries-old blood feud—or will he emerge as the last husband standing?

Some of my favorite writers are Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, James Lee Burke, and James Sallis. While I admire all of them, the truth is they didn’t provide the inspiration for my Koreatown Blues protagonist, Wes Norgaard, who I describe as having no reverse gear. Instead, I was inspired by a simple exchange between two characters in Lights in the Dusk, a film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki:

The heroine comes upon the badly beaten hero: “What will you do?”

Blood trickles down the edge of the hero’s mouth and his eye is bruised. He says, “I’ll open a garage.”

She says, “It’s good you haven’t lost hope.”

Once I started writing Koreatown Blues, the words flowed, 1,000 a day. This is how I like to work, making my thousand and stringing together as many writing days as I can—at least six a week.

When I was 22 years old, I used to explain away my lack of success by telling myself that Ernest Hemingway didn’t publish his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, until he was 26. Well, my 26th birthday came and went, along with a bunch of other milestones. Now, here I was at 64, still plugging away at the novel. People I’d grown up with were planning their retirement, while I was still trying to put even one run on the scoreboard.

Then, in one six-week period last year, the floodgates opened. Brash Books contracted for Koreatown Blues; Endeavour Press took an early mystery novel of mine, Red Thread (written in 1990), and will publish an ’80s noir novella of mine titled Night Within Night (written in 1986). Common Deer Press picked up a middle-grade novel titled Rex, co-written with Cody B. Stewart and Adam Rocke. And Tapas Media contracted to distribute a self-published novel of mine titled Basement, for download on iOS devices. (Basement was written in 1988).

What changed? Why is my work suddenly worthy of publication? Whatever the reason, I’m now a guy in his 60s who feels like he’s 26. I have a lot of catching up to do. Presently I have four other novels making the rounds, and I plan to write three more this year.

One of them is a novel based on that screenplay optioned years ago, the one that sputtered out. Who knows? If my book is a success, maybe I’ll see a film made from it after all.

Moving toward publication has been a charmed process, with an amazing cover design; great editing and support from my publishers at Brash Books, Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman; and lots of enthusiastic pre-publication buzz. Publishers Weekly called Koreatown Blues “an entertaining, fast-paced first novel, with an unexpected, up-to-date solution,” while Edgar Award-winning author Bruce DeSilva (The Dread Line) had this to say: “Koreatown Blues is a cleverly-plotted hard-boiled novel with crisp, muscular prose, a feverish pace, a vividly-drawn urban setting, and characters so real that Rudy Giuliani would stop and frisk them.”