Saturday, 27 September 2014 01:09

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Robert B. Parker died in 2010, but Spenser, his iconic Boston private eye, and Jesse Stone, the police chief in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts, continue.

Ace Atkins’s third novel about Spenser, Robert B. Parker’s Cheap Shot came out in May and Reed Farrel Coleman’s first Jesse Stone novel Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot was published earlier this month. Both novels landed on bestsellers list and each author is signed to produce more novels about Parker’s characters.

In addition, Atkins continues his own series about Quinn Colson, a former U.S. Ranger who returns to his Mississippi hometown; the latest of which is The Forsaken. Coleman, who wrote the Moe Prager novels, will be launching new series about a cop in 2015.

Mystery Scene caught up with Atkins and Coleman to discuss what it’s like to continue the characters created by a master of the genre as well as putting their own spin on these characters.

QUESTION: What are the challenges about picking up Parker’s mantle?
ATKINS: The expectations of fans and the high quality of Bob’s work. After all, he was a true master. As a longtime fan, you try not to think whose running shoes you're trying on. To paraphrase what Spenser says to Sixkill in Bob's last novel, just do the job you've been training to do. I'm now on my 16th novel and the fourth Spenser.

COLEMAN: It’s a bit of a high wire act to take over a successful series from anyone, but especially from one of the most gifted, well-loved, well-respected authors in the genre’s history. But I suppose the greatest challenge for me was not to focus on whose shoes I was trying to fill and to approach Blind Spot the way I would approach any of my other projects. That is to say, to write the best book I could write.  

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QUESTION: What are the drawbacks?

COLEMAN: The universe I was working in, the characters I was writing were not of my own creation. So I had to find doorways into Bob’s universe and into Jesse Stone’s head. This is a very different process for me than to work in a universe I’ve created and to write for characters that came from within me. But a professional has to find a way to take drawbacks and turn them into benefits. I think I did and I found a great joy in it.   

ATKINS: The drawbacks of Spenser are minor, mainly that his world and the characters are firmly in place. I don't think anyone wants to see Spenser and Susan break up. Or a major character exit the stage. But that much said, do expect a few surprises in future books in the Boston underworld.

QUESTION: Do you have any tricks or things you do to get into Parker’s mind set?
ATKINS: I do. One of my superstitions to warm up is to listen to jazz piano great, Dave McKenna. McKenna was not only a legendary musician but a mainstay of Boston. I know Parker was a fan and to me McKenna plays the true Spenser soundtrack. I just hear a few notes and I’m in that world.

COLEMAN: I tried to stay away from putting myself in Bob Parker’s head. I think that would have been a dangerous way for me to go. I took a very external approach. I reread all the Jesse Stone novels and tried to keep my writing in line with the physical structure of Mr. Parker’s. My focus was mostly on staying true to the essential nature of the characters, especially Jesse’s, Molly’s and Suit’s.

QUESTION: Had either of you met Parker before his death?
COLEMAN: Kate’s Mystery Books [in Boston] used to have big Christmas parties. Kate would invite authors from all over New England and the Mid-Atlantic states to come and be part of it. It was at Kate’s I met Dennis Lehane, the late Jerry Healy, and many other Boston based authors. At one of these parties, I was privileged to have shaken hands and chatted for a few minutes with Bob Parker.  He was gracious and a gentleman, though I’m sure he had no idea who I was. But somehow, having met him and Joan Parker, made me feel better about taking on Jesse Stone.

ATKINS: I never met Bob. I corresponded with him for a bit. He was kind enough to blurb my first novel. But truth be told, I don’t think he read it. Bob famously would say, “I can either read your book or blurb it. But I can't do both.” My knowledge of Bob came through a wonderful friendship with the late Joan Parker who taught me a lot about writing Spenser.

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QUESTION: Have you been able to put your own spin on these novels?

ATKINS: I believe I’ve been able to take my own experiences and inject some fresh ideas into the novels. In Cheap Shot, I drew upon a lifetime of being associated with football—my dad with the NFL and I played at Auburn—to tell an authentic story of that world.

COLEMAN: I think so. From the get go I was determined not to try to imitate Bob Parker’s writing style. I don’t think I would have been able to do either Mr. Parker or Jesse Stone justice by doing so. And I had no desire to try to compete with how brilliantly my friend and colleague Ace Atkins does Spenser. As I alluded to in an earlier answer, my goal was to approach the series by being true to the essential nature Bob Parker created for his characters. I like to think of my approach in terms of photography. I tried to use the same camera as Bob Parker, but with a different lens.   

QUESTION: Will you stop your own series to concentrate on the Parker novels?
COLEMAN: No. In fact, Putnam has signed me to begin a new series featuring retired Suffolk County (New York) cop cum PI Gus Murphy. The first book in the series, Where It Hurts, should be out in 2015.  

ATKINS: Never. I love continuing on the legacy of one of my all-time favorite writers. But the world I’ve created is extremely important to me.

QUESTION: How has doing these books affected your own series?
ATKINS: There are Spenser fans who have definitely found my Quinn Colson series. There is no doubt that the themes and ideas in the Parker novels have found their way into my own work.  

COLEMAN: It hasn’t really except to say that any writing I do makes me a better writer. So in that sense, doing these books can’t help but improve my work. I hope that writing these novels will help Jesse Stone fans become fans of my other novels.

QUESTION: How many more Parker novels will you be writing?
COLEMAN: Currently, I am signed to do four (Blind Spot plus three), but hope to earn the right to carry on for many more.
ATKINS: I am signed up for one more after the one I'm finishing now. Every day it's a pleasure and honor to keep Bob's creations continuing. I look forward to many more.

Photos: Ace Atkins and Reed Coleman with a 1955 Cadillac meet at Graceland in Memphis; photo courtesy Tad Pierson

Tuesday, 23 September 2014 07:09

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Where have the last 22 years gone?

It seems like 1992 was just yesterday when M.C. Beaton introduced us to the prickly, intelligent Agatha Raisin in Agatha Raisin and The Quiche of Death.

Who knew that charming, witty novel in which Agatha Raisin accidently kills the judge of a baking contest with a store-bought quiche would lead to 25 visits to the Cotswolds where she moved after retiring from her high-profile job in London?

All Agatha wanted was a quiet, peaceful life.

 But the Cotswolds prove to be anything but that. And Agatha moved from being a “retiree” to finding a second career as the owner of a detective agency. Well, she did want to reinvent herself by moving to the Cotswolds.

This month The Blood of an Englishman marks the 25th Agatha Raisin novel, and like the others, Beaton delivers a funny, yet thoughtful novel.

In The Blood of an Englishman, Agatha attends a local play—the title Babes in the Woods is enough to set her teeth on edge. While she is busy yawning, the village’s popular baker is murdered on stage. As she investigates, Agatha soon discovers that community theater is fraught with politics, power struggles and fights.

The Agatha Raisin series is considered one of the longest running cozy series by an author who is still with us.

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Entertainment Weekly
once stated “Agatha is like Miss Marple with a drinking problem, pack-a-day habit, and major man lust.”
That sounds about right.

Several years ago, I interviewed M.C. Beaton for Mystery Scene.

You might say I also interviewed Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Marion Gibbons, Jennie Tremaine, Charlotte Ward, all names under which she has written. And, of course, there is her real name, Marion Chesney.

She has written nearly 200 novels, including 30 in the Hamish Macbeth series and more than 100 historical romance novels.

When Beaton began writing about Agatha, most female sleuths were young, just establishing their careers and generally in their early 30s.

 Not so Agatha.

When the series began, Agatha was 53 years old and retiring at the height of her career in public relations. Divorced, Agatha generally picked the wrong man. Her obsessiveness, her totally unpolitically correct approach to life and her rudeness belied a vulnerability that connected with readers, as did the fact that she was an entrepreneur who built up her own business.

“I wanted to create someone you might not like but who you wanted to win out in the end,” said Beaton during our interview.

Here’s hoping that Agatha, who has become one of readers’ favorite sleuths, never retires.


Photo of M.C. Beaton by Louise Bowls

Friday, 19 September 2014 01:09

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A Walk Among the Tombstones
shows that maybe, just maybe, filmmakers finally understand Lawrence Block’s novels.

Based on Block’s 10th novel with elements from A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and The Sins of the Fathers, A Walk Among the Tombstones captures the spirit of the Matt Scudder novels, especially the nuances of character, while also giving a brisk, action-packed plot packed with creepy villains who are chillingly real.

And Liam Neeson, who has fashioned himself into a not-to-be-messed-with action hero, proves himself to be the perfect Scudder, the former NYPD cop turned unlicensed private investigator.

Is he the Scudder I envisioned when reading the novels? Now that I think about it, yeah, he is.

Hollywood has never been as kind to the prolific Block as it has to the late Elmore Leonard or, more recently, to Dennis Lehane.

Films such as Get Shorty and Jackie Brown and the FX series Justified have captured Leonard’s combination of serious plot, wry wit and pitch-perfect dialogue. Lehane’s novels such as Mystic River and The Drop, which opened last week and we reviewed, not only have captured the spirit of his books, but have embraced and enhanced his vivid vision.

Not so Block.

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While several screen treatments are attributed to Block (you can look up, too), there have been only two major movies based on his novels, and neither did his books proud. The 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die with Jeff Bridges as Block’s perennial antihero Matt Scudder was just all right, though good luck trying to correlate the film with the 1982 novel. Then there was the what on earth were they thinking Burglar released in 1987 and starring Whoopi Goldberg as Block’s “gentleman burglar” Bernie Rhodenbarr. The less said about that film, the better.

And now we have A Walk Among the Tombstones, the film that Block fans have been waiting for, well, since the series began in 1976 with The Sins of the Father.

In A Walk Among the Tombstones, Scudder reluctantly agrees to help heroin trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) find the men who kidnapped and brutally murdered his wife. Scudder has little use for Kenny the drug dealer but he relates to the man’s grief over his wife. As he investigates, Scudder soon realizes that this is not the first time that the loved ones of drug dealers have been targeted.

As Scudder prowls the backstreets and marginal neighborhoods of New York City, he is aided by Kenny’s addict brother Kenny (Boyd Holbrook) and the homeless teenager TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a character who first appeared in Block’s 1991's A Dance at the Slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, the vicious murderers Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson) have targeted another victim.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is fairly faithful to the essential plot of Block’s novel. The action and the hunt for the murderers are spot-on.

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Gone is Scudder’s relationship with Elaine, a wise move; while it works well in the books, it would have muddied the film’s plot. The screenplay carefully doles out what prompted Scudder to leave the NYPD; if viewers aren’t familiar with the books they will think they know why in the first half hour, but there is more to come.

The violence level in A Walk Among the Tombstones is high, but no higher than your typical thriller and the violence is not gratuitous. But be prepared.

Neeson’s Scudder is how Block has shaped this character—world weary, resigned to a lifetime of guilt. He has seen too much of the seedy side of life, yet still believes in justice. A man of violence who now abhors violence, Scudder is, nonetheless, prepared to do what he has to do. We want more Scudder movies and with Neeson as the private investigator.

Although a trivia question at the film’s preview asked which PBS series Dan Stevens starred in, the people behind us still didn’t believe that this steely-eyed, dark-haired drug trafficker was the same actor who also had played the aristocratic (and blond) Matthew Crawley in Downton Abbey. Stevens is virtually unrecognizable in A Walk Among the Tombstones and his transformation again shows what an intense, skillful actor he is. Steven’s Kenny Kristo would never be mistaken for Crawley, the would-be heir to Downton Abbey who is Lord Grantham's third cousin once removed. Stevens also is starring in the new thriller The Guest, which also is a long way from a dapper British aristocrat.

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The supporting cast also works well to give life to the film. Adam David Thompson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and David Harbour (Elliot Hirsch on The Newsroom, Reed Akley on Manhattan) embrace the chilling criminals and their odd relationship. Boyd Holbrook (Milk, The Big C, Hatfields & McCoys) takes the typical drug addict character and imbues him with a complexity. Brian “Astro” Bradley (Earth to Echo) shows the survival mentality of this intelligent kid of the streets. And if you are wondering where you saw Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays the groundskeeper; he played the groundskeeper in True Detective.

Director Scott Frank, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the plot moving at a fast clip, while lingering over the seedy sides of New York City during the 1990s where the film is set. Frank is best known as a screenwriter for films such as The Wolverine, Marley and Me and Minority Report.

There never seems to be a definitive answer to the number of books attributed to Block, a four-time Edgar Award winner, among other awards, including being named Grand Master in 1994 by the Mystery Writers of America. He began his writing career in the mid-1950s, in a variety of genres, and has written under several pseudonyms. It has been said that he has written anywhere from 150 to 200 novels and that number actually seems low to me.

No matter the exact number, Block has been on the ground floor of the mystery genre’s transformation. His Matt Scudder novels went from an old-school basic sleuth to one whose interior motivation was as important as the crimes he helped solved while, at the same time, never veering from the tenets that what makes a good detective. Scudder has never stayed in one place emotionally, but has evolved through the approximately 17 novels and various short stories that Block has written about him.

Scudder also was one of the first mystery fiction characters to acknowledge his alcoholism and try to get a handle on it. Scudder’s AA meetings are an important part of the novels and his understanding of the 12 Steps and how these relate to him and his quest for redemption and justice are a major part of the series. The film A Walk Among the Tombstones shows Scudder’s struggles with his addiction and how the meetings are, for a long time, his only lifeline to people.

Now that Matt Scudder has been well represented on film—and, please, give us another with Neeson—it’s time to think of another Block character I always thought would make a good film. Keller, a lonely, wistful hitman, was the subject of Block’s four episodic novels, starting with Hit Man, 1998, and one full-length novel, Hit and Run, 2008.

Just a suggestion.

Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images, language and brief nudity, 114 minutes


Photos: Top and second photo: Liam Neeson; third photo: Dan Stevens; fourth photo: Liam Neeson with Brian “Astro” Bradley. Photos courtesy Universal Pictures/Cross Creek Pictures