Arthur Geisert has a little piggy solving her own Mystery at an art museum, where the unnamed piglet and her Grandma have gone to sketch on 'Copying Day.' Someone has been cutting bits out of the paintings, replacing them with crude drawings. All the evidence points to a pesky raccoon, but our little porker thinks he's being framed, and uses observation and deduction to unmask the real villains. Geisert's tinted drawings are full of visual jokes as well as the clues that lead to the final conclusion. This is definitely a book in which the pictures tell half the story.
Ellen Stoll Walsh's mouse detectives are back on the case, in Dot and Jabber and the Mystery of the Missing Stream. This time they are faced with an ecological disaster: a storm has filled the stream with twigs and leaves, but the water has disappeared. Where did it go? Dot and Jabber follow the clues back to the sourcee literally! A note at the end of the book explains the building of dams and how they are used. Walsh's cut-paper collage illustrations evoke the forest floor, and her clever mice will surely be ready for more investigations.
There's not too much mystery in Alphabet Mystery, by Audrey Wood, with illustrations by Bruce Wood. Little X is missing from the alphabet's nightly bed check, and the other letters must go out on their trusty pencils to find him. They run into some unusual obstacles, including the reluctant X himself, but on the final page the secret is out, and X realizes his true value. The true value of this slight offering is in Bruce Woods' digitally produced 3-D illustrations. The two-page spreads create a game of alphabetical hide-and-seek that will encourage young readers to find more letters and numbers throughout the book.
Anna Nilson has a combination of art appreciation and detective work that will appeal to older readers. The Great Art Scandal is part Where's Waldo, part Clue, in the format of a picture book for older readers. The basic premise is somewhat complex: four teams of artists have been assigned to take elements from various works of art and combine them into their own paintings. Unfortunately, some joker has gotten into the pack, and is deliberately forging paintings, which will, of course, ruin the work of the honest teams. The mission (should you decide to accept it) is to find what elements are being used, how they are being used, and by a process of elimination, find the joker. There is a key to the puzzle at the end of the book, with a list of the works of art, their origins, and their present locations. How many times this book can be used before the readers learn the key is problematical; however, the artworks are worthy of examination, and the puzzle concept may draw older readers back to the museum to see these paintings as they really are.
Andrew Taylor is in top form in this new mystery, set in London in 1934, the brief time between the two wars that changed European culture forever. In this robust tale, Taylor focuses on Lydia Langstone, a high-born woman who has fled to the city to escape her abusive husband. In attempting to conceal her identity, she rents a bed-sit in Bleeding Heart Square, an area far removed from her usual society haunts.
Soon Langstone, along with the beguiling fellow residents of the building, begin a quest to discover what happened to the former landlady, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances four years earlier. Delving into the missing spinster's life, Langstone and her cohorts uncover many secrets about the woman and those closest to her. Langstone is also searching for her biological father, whom she has never met but believes to be living nearby.
Taylor, as always, is true to the era about which he writes, and tells his tale with verve. His characterizations are appealing and meticulously drawn. There is an emphasis on the plight of women, and their rights—or lack thereof—during a period when abusive husbands enjoyed impunity and divorce was scandalous no matter the circumstances. Taylor, who deserves a better reception in the US for his intriguing mysteries, is a winner of Britain's prestigious John Creasey Memorial Award and the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. He's also been short-listed for both the Gold Dagger and the Edgar. Hopefully, this polished novel will bring him the recognition he deserves.
Carol O'Connell has an uncanny knack for creating worlds that are utterly unordinary, yet weirdly believable. They have an internal logic and richness of detail that makes them spring fully to life. She creates one of these alternate universes in Bone by Bone, her second standalone novel.
Oren Hobbs has been called home to Coventry after a long stint in the military police. Coventry is a strange town, full of long-held secrets—like what happened to Oren's brother, a gifted young photographer who went into the woods one day never to be seen again—until someone begins returning the dead teen's remains to his father's front porch, one bone at a time.
This complex and eerie book, offers a colorful cast of characters including a mad weight-lifting librarian, a beautiful but insane ornithologist tormented by a possessive husband, a crooked sheriff, a drunken deputy, a crippled ex-cop, and a medium who holds seances where townsfolk gather to hear from Oren's dead brother. The town is a peculiar place, even for its northern California setting, a community knotted together with a tangle of fraught relationships. Oren is a secretive protagonist, and the rest of the cast is as elusive as they are eccentric. But as always, O'Connell creates characters and situations that have their own lunatic logic, and her imagination fills the book with brilliant glimpses of a vividly realized world.
You're a disgraced FBI agent given a second chance; your former partner wants you to stay disgraced as cover to bring down the Mafia boss who nearly killed you both; and oh, it means calling off your quickie wedding. Do you take the deal?
Unfortunately, for Mike Yeager, he does in Thomas Lakeman's latest, Broken Wing. Yeager goes to a New Orleans still suffering through its first year post-Katrina. In order to save a kidnapped British woman, Yeager must endure a criminal indictment and infiltrate mafia don Emelio Barca's organization. Surprisingly, Barca welcomes him back with open arms, but only if he retrieves Barca's daughter, Sofia. No problem. Sofia was Yeager's lover before he tried to bring the family down.
Lakeman paints a horrifying portrait of New Orleans in its early recovery. While Barca's trust in Yeager strains credibility, other aspects don't, such as private security firm Kadmos playing both sides against each other. Kadmos resembles the infamous Blackwater organization in Iraq, yet Lakeman makes the real Blackwater look like mall cops. It's when the level of Kadmos' deception is revealed that Lakeman's skill becomes apparent. He weaves a complex web of conspiracy, lies, and a family secret or two. Broken Wing sinks its teeth into the reader and does not let go until the final chapter.
When 37 bodies, 24 of them children, are discovered in a mass grave outside of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilia police and his staff are called in to investigate. Initial forensic evidence indicates that the bodies were buried around the same time and may include a number of parents and their children. When it is learned that the bodies have had their hearts removed, this strange case becomes even more bizarre. Is this the work of a strange cult, or is something even more sinister at play?
To solve the case, Silva has to placate his boss by pretending to spend more time digging up dirt on a political opponent than investigating the murders. To make matters worse, the Brazilian Minister of Tourism wants the case hushed up, presumably because it may alarm tourists, but in reality because his daughter belongs to a Wiccan cult. Despite these distractions, Silva and his crew doggedly follow the clues from the lush jungle, through the dangerous, crime-infested areas of Sao Paulo, and even to the highest echelons of Brazilian society. This is Gage's second novel featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva. In addition to being a first-rate mystery, it's a wonderful travelogue through a Brazil the average tourist never gets to see.
The perennial sci-fi plot of computers taking over people's lives gets a modern brush-up in Daniel Suarez's intriguing, yet flawed debut. Daemon is a computer whose name is an acronym for the tongue-twisting "Disk And Execution MONitor," and it isn't just out to control a few people, it's out to rule the world—maybe even destroy it. Daemon is the creation of gaming genius Matthew Sobol, head of the Los Angeles-based CyberStorm Entertainment. Before his death at age 34 from brain cancer, Sobol launched an Internet war using Daemon, which has now taken over many of the world's computer systems. No one, certainly not the local cops or the FBI, are prepared for Daemon's fury, which initiates attacks by unmanned Hummers, implodes buildings, and leaves in its wake a body count soaring into the thousands. Daemon also begins to recruit several overly intelligent, but underused people, such as a gaming expert and an identity thief as its henchmen.
Suarez skillfully combines both the elements of sci-fi and mystery, making his cyber thriller suspenseful and all too terrifyingly realistic. Originally self-published by Suarez in 2006, Daemon's buzz in the tech sector and blogosphere caught Dutton's attention. Cliched characters and clumsy writing (such as "she was a sexual hand grenade with the pin pulled out") occasionally pop up, and Suarez' reliance on complicated computer jargon may leave many eyes glazed over, but Suarez redeems his story with a clever premise, surprising twists, and a few worthy insights into our human desires. Suarez is sure to find himself compared to Neal Stephenson and Tom Clancy.
Depression-era noir and L.A.—what a perfect fit. Linda L. Richards makes the most of her atmospheric setting in this second mystery featuring Kitty Pangborn, general factotum to Dexter Theroux, an alcoholic, marginally successful L.A. private investigator. In keeping with the noir tradition, the cynical Dexter accepts a case that is much more complicated than is immediately apparent. The investigation takes Dexter and Kitty behind the dark, sordid scenes of the Hollywood studios and their stable of amoral actors. Fortunately, Kitty and Dex do not succumb to the lure of Hollywood glitz and are able to arrive at the truth.
Death Was in the Picture and its predecessor, Death Was the Other Woman, are stylishly written, with plenty of enjoyable wry humor. But unlike many noir mysteries, Richards' books are not tough-guy narratives. They unfold through the perspective of Kitty, with a distinctively feminine and refreshing insight into the dark recesses of Hollywood and its denizens. Having fallen from a life of privilege to one of relative poverty because of her father's bankruptcy and suicide, Kitty has seen life from both sides, and is uniquely poised to lend perspective on the culture she's experiencing. Via Kitty, Richards skillfully evokes Depression-era life, emphasizing the travails of the masses, in grim contrast to the garish excesses of Hollywood and its promise of momentary escape through empty entertainment. Richards has clearly mastered the art of writing the historical, and her rendition of the Depression is unnervingly timely.
You have to marvel at Dan Simmons. A mere two years after producing the massive, intensely engaging, critically acclaimed masterpiece The Terror, he returns with another massive, intensely engaging, sure to be critically acclaimed masterpiece, Drood. Set in Victorian England, the novel focuses on the last five years of Charles Dickens' eventful and troubled life, beginning with the tragic 1865 train accident in Staplehurst, England and following Dickens' activities until his death in 1870. Simmons' brilliant conceit is that the story is being told by Dickens' friend, associate, and sometimes rival, Wilkie Collins, via a manuscript scheduled to be released 125 years after Collins' death.
Collins, a laudanum addict, and the very model of an unreliable narrator, weaves a tale so fantastic that it rivals the best of his own classic "novels of sensation," The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Collins maintains that, after the train accident, Dickens met, and became fatally obsessed with, a mystery man named Drood, an undead mesmerist supreme who some claim was responsible for over three hundred murders in London over the course of several decades. Collins painstakingly details Dickens' subsequent decline, and his myriad faults as a human being, at the same time exposing his own despicable acts and habits.
Expertly embellishing on historical events, Simmons ultimately leaves it to readers to decide whether Collins' manuscript contains the grisly truth or the barely controlled rants of a diseased mind. Either way, it makes for hours of macabre, but also enthralling and rewarding, entertainment.
There are plenty of mass-market media-driven paperbacks out there for eager young readers. The most ubiquitous for the nursery set is Blue's Clues, based on the Nickelodeon series of the same name. Blue is a little dog who follows clues to a logical conclusion with the help of a human interpreter Her fans can find her in various formats, from board books with lift-the-flap interaction, to brief paperbacks in the standard sizes. Blue's Clues is an excellent place to start a child on the road to enjoyment of mystery fiction.
Justified is the story of Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, Deadwood). With his Stetson and Kentucky drawl, it’s easy to dismiss Raylan. That would be wrong. He’s a complicated character who is a crack shot. Raylan has been reassigned to Kentucky, where he grew up, after a shooting incident in Miami. He expected the Marshal service to save him from his coal mining hometown of Harlan, Kentucky. Instead, Harlan is now his punishment.
We’re sure to hear more about Raylan’s past, especially when his career criminal father Arlo (Raymond Barry, Cold Case, Training Day) comes on board. Raylan also has an old friend and former coal miner who’s now a bank robber, a ex-wife and assorted other friends and relations from his old days.
Justified is based on Leonard’s 2001 novella Fire in the Hole. While Justified has a strong western element—conjuring visions of Gunsmoke and the Wild West—it also works as a look at the angst of small towns, at policing a community where you know everyone and coming to terms with who you are. The plots are also darned involving and the acting first-class. As someone who grew up near Paducah, Kentucky., the accents are dead-on. Justified does justice to Elmore Leonard. I, for one, am hoping for a long run with Raylan and crew.
Justified airs at 10 p.m. EST Tuesdays on the FX Channel. Or watch premiere episode and clips online at fxnetworks.com .
In honor of Janet Evanovich's Sizzling Sixteen out this month, Mystery Scene is re-releasing this gem of an interview with the author of the beloved Stephanie Plum series. (Originally published in sold out Mystery Scene Issue #77.)
When Janet Evanovich sold her first book, the 1987 romance novel Hero at Large, to the now-defunct Second Chance at Love line for $2000, she quit her secretarial job and devoted herself full-time to writing.
Today, Evanovich is not merely one of the best-loved mystery writers in the country, but she’s an industry unto herself, with recent books in her Stephanie Plum series debuting at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, book signings drawing between 300 and 3,000 people, a twice-yearly newsletter with a free subscription base of 70,000 fans, a website (www.evanovich.com) that boasts three millions hits per month and a small line of self-produced T-shirts, key tags, and mugs. She’s even incorporated—Evanovich, Inc.—with husband Pete managing the business, son Peter handling the finances and daughter Alex running the website, all of them working full-time.
And 1987’s Hero At Large? Even with creases, a tear and a cocked spine, a copy of the slim paperback (published under the name Steffie Hall) lists for no less than $35 on the Internet—yet another testament to the public’s steadfast interest in all things Evanovich.
This season, Evanovich takes her writing and the business behind it to yet another level, upping her output to two books per year with the novella-sized seasonal title Visions of Sugar Plums. The holiday fable starts with everyone’s favorite bounty hunter Stephanie Plum visited by a tall, blond, athletic stranger named Diesel who possesses supernatural powers and may be anything from a space alien to the “friggin’ Spirit of Christmas;” the story continues with the two of them trying to track down Sandy Claws, a skip wanted on a burglary rap, and with Stephanie trying in vain to track down a Christmas tree; and the book ends with… well, with yet another success added to Evanovich’s enviable résumé.
Mystery Scene: Mary Higgins Clark has written several seasonal books and John Grisham published Skipping Christmas last year. What prompted you to add a holiday title to the Stephanie Plum series?
Evanovich: First of all, I wanted to do two books a year. My fans had been telling me “You don’t write fast enough” and I knew that I didn’t have time to do two full books a year, so I knew what I really wanted to do was 1 1/2 books. Because my books come out in June, the logical timing to do the second book would be November-December, so it just made sense that it would be a holiday book. Plus I had this idea for a new character that I wanted to bring into this series—Diesel.
About Diesel…The Stephanie Plum series occasionally has otherworldly elements—the character of Ranger is certainly out of the ordinary—but the new book steps more explicitly into the fantastic, the fabulous, perhaps even the world of the comic book with Diesel and with Sandy Claws and his elves and with a villain who siphons electricity to blast at the good guys. What sent your writing in this direction? And how do you think readers will react?
The Plum series has always been about heroes, but very special kinds of heroes. These are people like you and me, and just like you and me, sometimes things happen where you just have to put yourself on the line and do the right thing—do something that is maybe a little heroic. In Hard Eight, Stephanie’s sister—who is not a heroic character by any means—has to step in and save Stephanie and do something that she would never have thought that she had the nerve to do. So these are the heroes that interest me—ordinary people who are heroic in their own small ways. I wanted to do a book that had more of this heroic theme to it, but maybe about a guy who, if you met him on the street, looked like you and me but who actually had certain heroic attributes. I think that the reader is really going to like Diesel, because even though he kind of moves into the superhero, fantastic area, he still is somebody that you know. And he’s a sexy guy, a funny guy, and the book is filled with action—all of the same elements that the Plum novels are filled with. I think that the real measure of this is that my daughter started reading the book and said she was sort of put off that I had brought a mystical character into the world of Plum. But by the time she finished, she had bought into the character. And that’s what writing fiction is about: being able to suspend the reader’s disbelief in a way that works.
And if Diesel becomes a regular character, Stephanie’s soon going to have a lot more men to juggle in her life.
Yeah, [laughs] I like complicating Stephanie’s life.
You talk about heroes. Now, more than a year later, we’re all still clearly affected by the events of September 11, 2001. In Hard Eight, you have a character talking about anthrax, but that’s the only small reference to the terrorist attacks, despite Jersey being among the areas most affected by those events. Meanwhile, a fellow Jersey native, Bruce Springsteen, is dealing explicitly with 9/11 in his recent work.
To a large extent, my humor comes from social commentary. And everybody knows that New Jersey, besides competing with L.A. to be the smog capital of the world, is also famous for taking part in the anthrax business. So that was just one of the Jersey things that I threw in as part of the mix. But I made a very conscious decision not to reference 9/11 or terrorists or any of that tragedy because I feel like my job as a novelist is to address positive issues. Now that doesn’t mean I don’t want to make people think, but my mission in life is that when someone reads my book they feel better about themselves and about the world around them. Rather than dwell on the cathartic side of things and feel the need to purge yourself of all the atrocities and the sadnesses, I allow people to laugh, and I create characters that are positive and that people love, and while people read the book, they’re smiling. Maybe they’re nice to their dogs and their kids and their husbands and their wives while they’re reading the book, and maybe they like themselves a little bit better. So that’s my mission statement, and to bring something like 9/11 into it…that’s someone else’s job, it’s not my job.
In a Q&A section of your website, you advise first-time authors to “Write for the reader.” And you are very clear about the relationship you want to cultivate between yourself and your reader. You started out as a romance writer. How did those early experiences impact your approach to your readers, to your writing and to your career?
It was a very large influence. Starting in romance gave me a fantastic opportunity to find my voice as a writer. I was writing a lot of books very quickly, and it gave me the opportunity to decide what I liked and what I didn’t like. I realized that I like the positive characters. I loved writing with humor. I found out I did not like writing all the internal narrative that went in a romance—the business about the heroine thinking about her life and her love. And I didn’t like writing the very specific sex scene. What I liked was the adventure of the sexual tension—the chase, the hunt. About two-thirds of the way through that career, I realized that I probably was in the wrong genre, because I wanted more action. The crime element helped move my story forward, so I decided that I would move over into the crime genre, take with me the things that I loved to do and leave the others behind.
Your “Perpetrator Case File” from St. Martin’s Press says you’re wanted for “offenses against literary convention” and for “breaking every rule in the publishing industry.” What are those offenses? How is your career different from that of other writers?
I can’t imagine what they meant by that! (laughs) I think that’s probably stretching it a little, but I like it. Some of it may have to with things other than writing. I think of myself as a full-service entertainer. I try to be a good writer. I try to have good skills. I have causes that I love and I have things that I want to communicate to the reader. But my primary purpose is to entertain, and I’m not sure that that’s true of all writers. When I was in college, I was an art major—a painter—and what we learned was that you paint for yourself. And if someone comes to that painting and takes something away, that’s wonderful, but that’s not really your purpose; your purpose is to serve some higher calling within yourself. When I first started writing, I was writing these very esoteric, unique, quasi-literary sort-of things, and I wasn’t having any success with it, wasn’t even really enjoying it, and I realized after several years of not being published that that wasn’t who I was. My kick came from the audience, from communication, and that really changed the way that I wrote dramatically. I started looking at my audience and loving and respecting my audience and thinking what is it that they need from me that no one else can give them. I started looking for a product that the reader would really enjoy. And I think that that possibly sets me apart from some other writers and from publishing philosophy as well. Also, I spend an enormous amount of my own money on promotion and just on enjoying being a writer. On the web site we have a store where we sell mugs and t-shirts and we don’t make any money on it, it’s all non-profit, but we thought it would be fun. So I think that I do a lot of things like that that not everyone does.
You earn high praise for your writing, your plotting. But you’re clearly a savvy marketer as well. What role does marketing yourself play in your success?
Marketing is critical. And I think it’s very important that you become a business person as well as an author. As I said before, my kick is the audience, and the bigger the audience, the more fun it is for me. If what’s really important to you are the numbers and the readers, then you have to start paying attention to how you reach those people. You can’t just sit back and expect that your publisher is going to do the whole job today, because publishers have tons of authors that they’re trying to promote, and your number comes up once a year. The publicity departments are overworked and publishing has a certain budget for marketing and so I think that everybody has to be very smart about how they use all of these resources. It’s necessary to be just as creative about your advertising and your marketing and the way you sell yourself as you are creative about the book that you put out.
And that’s why you and your daughter host the monthly games on the website, provide the chance for people to ask you questions on email? Why you have your mailing address printed right inside the dustjacket of your books?
I didn’t want to be an author in an ivory tower. Maybe it’s the mother in me, but I think of my readers as an extended family, and it seems a shame to drop a book in their laps once a year and then go away. And so we decided that year-round we wanted to be accessible, we wanted to entertain, and so we play games and have contests. We try to think of fun things to do on book tour, because if somebody is going to be driving for four or five hours to come see me, we should have something interesting for them to see. For a couple of cities, we brought in a live band, and this year in New York, I dragged a friend of mine, Lance Storm the wrestler, onstage with me to take his shirt off and read Joe Morelli, and because you can’t have a WWE wrestler without a slut, my daughter volunteered to be the slut of the night. She came out in her little spandex skirt with her bleached blonde hair, and we all had fun. This is what happens when you get a certain amount of success as an author. You have opportunities that you never had before, more money available to you, a little more influence on things. And you get a sense that you’re standing in a bakery and you can eat anything you want. There’s just nothing that you can’t take a shot at, so do something different, have some fun. If it works, great; if it doesn’t, you don’t do it next year. But give something back to the fans and enjoy it for yourself too.
What’s your advice for an aspiring writer who doesn’t have the keys to the bakery? How should they approach their craft and approach the issues of marketing?
First of all, if this is important to you and you love it, you don’t give up. I wrote four books that never got published. It took me 10 years to get published from the time I got started seriously trying to write. If you’re not successful at first, you just need to stick with it. Do a lot of reading and start making lists. What do I love about these books? What do I hate about these books? What am I going to incorporate into my own book? Look at style, at how people build books—because that’s what pacing is about: a chunk of narrative, a chunk of action, a chunk of dialogue—and at how you vary all these elements so that the reader turns the pages. Become the very best craftsman that you can. Think about the reader and respect that reader and write a story for them.
And as far as learning the business part? Finding an agent, an editor, a publisher?
I think that organizations are very helpful. Romance Writers of America, whether you want to write a romance or not, is a very nurturing organization for establishing peers, for learning skills, for getting market information. Sisters in Crime is another great organization. And I think you need to read Publishers Weekly every week to see what’s going on. You want to look at the bestseller lists and see what people are reading and enjoying, and see if you can stay in front of the curve. A lot of writers would disagree with me on this because a lot of writers write the book that’s in their heart and that needs to be written, and I think that’s fantastic. But I’m a very commercial writer and I made part of my success just because of timing. I came in on top of the wave. Women were flooding onto the crime scene, and they offered readers something different: the female protagonist who was not part of a cozy. She was a hardboiled female protagonist, she was her own person, and readers really responded to that. I came on right at that time, right behind the crest of the wave—Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky—and I rode that in. And I think that’s important when you’re starting out to understand where the market is going and see if you can look to the future, see if you’re riding a wave—if a wave exists.
Riding the wave, watching the trends…. Perhaps you don’t want to write just for yourself, closing yourself off from your audience, but isn’t there a balance between that extreme and simply responding to what the market demands?
I think that there is a difference between writing for the reader and writing what the market demands. Writing what the market demands is like what they do on television: one cowboy show works so the next season you have 45 cowboy shows. That’s not exactly what I meant. What I meant is that you look at who your audience is and try to figure out what these people need and want from you. At night when they’re tired, they come home from work, they’re overworked, they’ve got the kids in bed and they only have 45 minutes, and what is it that they want from you? What is it that you, as a unique person, can bring to them? And it has to be part of you. The Plum series is me. I know Stephanie inside and out. I am not Stephanie, but this comes from my own childhood. These are people that I know, that I lived with. This is a place that I know—Trenton is a character for me. As a writer, you put an enormous amount of yourself and your experience and your background into this and you do write for yourself to a large extent. But you don’t ignore that person who’s going to be buying that book. You never want to write what the market demands. You just want to look and see what the reader would enjoy. I think that it’s easy to confuse the two.
I’m sure that a frequent question at your readings concerns which writers had an influence on you. As a twist on that, which writers have you had a positive influence on?
I don’t know a lot of writers that I’ve influenced, although I suspect that I have. I think there are probably writers who put a lot more humor into their books because I broke that ground, but I don’t know who they are. But I do know from my fan mail that I’ve influenced a lot of readers to be brave, and to be nice and to smile. I get letters from ladies who have gone through chemo and have taken my books in with them because they knew they would need something to make them laugh and make them feel good. And I get a lot of letters from seniors who say, “I’ve lost a partner” or “I’m a shut-in and your books made me smile.” And I get letters from people who say if Stephanie could get through the day, then even with all of my shortcomings, surely I could do that too. That’s the influence that I know about, and I think it’s real. I don’t try to delude myself that I could change the world or that I could even change one person. But I do think that I have influenced people in small ways… 10 minutes at a time.
And 10 minutes can really go a long way.
I’m happy with 10 minutes. I think that’s a good thing to do.
Illustrations of Ranger, Stephanie Plum, Joe Morelli, and Bob the dog courtesy of www.evanovich.com.
I had a meeting at the network the other day to pitch series ideas. The first thing the network exec said to me was that they weren't interested in any mysteries. Those kinds of shows, he said, were stodgy and dated and their network was far too hip and edgy for that sort of thing. I found this surprising, considering his network has more than half-a-dozen mystery series on the air.
The network exec doesn't realize the shows he loves so much, that define his network as hip and edgy (the networks’ two favorite words) are mysteries. He doesn't realize it in much the same way that the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review doesn't notice that, on any given week, eight out of the ten local and national bestsellers are mysteries. He, too, believes his audience isn’t interested in mysteries. But we aren’t talking about books here, so…back to TV.
We are, in fact, in the midst of a new golden age of mysteries on television. There are more mysteries, and more great mysteries, on the air than ever before. But you’d never know it talking to network executives. The biggest mystery to me is why they don’t realize it. When these execs talk about mystery series, they’re thinking of shows like Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, Matlock, Cannon, The Rockford Files and Diagnosis Murder. Those series were relentlessly old-fashioned, featured veteran stars and drew older audiences. In an era where networks covet viewers who are between the ages of 18-35, those kinds of shows are poison. But when these same execs look at the three Law & Order shows, the two CSI series, and Crossing Jordan, John Doe, NYPD Blue, Robbery Homicide Division, and too many others to name, they don’t see mysteries. They see cutting edge, envelope-pushing, edgy shows that tell stories in a bold new way.
They’re either being fooled or they are fooling themselves.
The new wave of TV mysteries are sticking as closely to the tried-and-true formulas (the closed mystery, the open mystery, the whodunit, the procedural, the cozy), as any episode of Inspector Morse, Hart to Hart, or Banacek. But they hide their genre trappings behind the slicked-up cinematography, music-video editing, and loud score of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.
In fact, Bruckheimer is the executive producer of the hottest show on television, CSI (and its clone CSI Miami). Yet, despite all it's cool forensics, quick-cutting, and moody lighting, narratively-speaking, the show is about as revolutionary as Quincy. It's a straight-ahead whodunit and a police procedural, and a damn good one at that.
When Law & Order: Criminal Intent premiered last season, NBC excitedly hyped its ground-breaking new approach. On this edgy new series, we’d see the crime unfold from the criminal’s point of view, and then we’d follow the cops as they tried to solve the mystery. Apparently, nobody at NBC ever watched Hawaii 5-0 or Streets of San Francisco.
The surprise hit of this past summer wasn't another new reality show, it was USA Network’s series Monk, about a clever detective racked with phobias who solves crimes with the help of a plucky assistant. It’s such a hip and unusual series, that ABC made TV history by airing the cable reruns on its primetime schedule. As fun and charming as the series is, it’s essentially a new take on Nero Wolfe.
Why don’t network execs realize these shows are mysteries?
Because their knowledge of television history doesn’t go back much further than Nash Bridges. Because they don’t really understand or appreciate mysteries. And because if they admit these shows are, at their heart, really no different than a hundred old series, they can’t convince themselves they’re buying and developing hip and edgy stuff. It’s not the concepts that set these shows apart from Murder She Wrote, Barnaby Jones and Hawaii 5-0. The big difference is the stellar writing and producing. We’re seeing riskier story-telling, more compelling themes, and more realistic characters. And while the stories follow the familiar formulas of the mystery genre, they are presented in fresh and original new ways. So to the network executives, these aren’t mysteries. They are simply great television shows. Maybe that’s why they are putting so many of them on the air now.
You know, come to think of it, let’s not tell them they’re mysteries…
Cold pizza, John Walsh, and bad guys: An insider's glimpse behind the scenes of America's longest-running true crime show.
The bright lights overhead were on at full blast. The huge insignia I’d seen on TV hung on the wall behind me. Three television cameras were positioned at various angles throughout the cavernous studio. I stood in the middle of the soundstage, holding a telephone to my ear, pretending to be one of the hotline operators on America’s Most Wanted.
It was my first week as an intern for Manhunter, an international spinoff of America's Most Wanted, and I'd been invited down to the set to participate in the production of a promotional video for Fox. Since this would never air, staff members were being used as extras. I was thrilled. After spending the last year in graduate school classrooms discussing postmodern theory in the sitcom, I was on a real TV set. And this wasn't just any set—it was the home of the legendary America's Most Wanted, hosted by crimefighter John Walsh. Walsh is a tireless advocate for victim’s rights whose activist career began in tragedy. In the summer of 1981, John and Reve Walsh's six-year-old son, Adam, was abducted and later found murdered.
The Walshes turned their grief into advocacy for missing and exploited children—and in 1988, John turned from helping to pass legislation for missing kids to literally helping to find them, with Fox's America's Most Wanted.
From the start, the show worked with local and national law enforcement to serve up information about violent criminals—in the process, turning the American public into a giant crimefighting task force. This was serious business, and John Walsh was obviously a serious guy.
When he came out onto the set that first day, I was uneasy. In addition to our shared name, I was about the age that Adam would have been had he lived. Would our meeting cause him pain? He looked around, nodded at the people he knew and shook hands with some of them. He even smiled. I had spent the last week watching countless episodes of his show, and while he had displayed many expressions—angry, vengeful, and even sympathetic—cheerful hadn’t seemed to be in his repertoire. Then he made his way to me. “We haven’t met,” he said, putting out his hand.
I tried to speak, but my voice was about as accessible as a maximum security prison.
“This is Adam,” someone said on my behalf. “He’s one of the new interns.” “Welcome aboard,” he said, and there it was—twice in ten minutes—a smile. Then he turned to someone behind the camera. “Now are we ready to do this shot or what?”
That was the beginning of my career at America’s Most Wanted, the only major TV program produced in Washington, DC where the staff doesn’t care who’s in the White House. Within a matter of months, I graduated from being an intern to a production assistant to a writer. I was thrilled. But although my job was technically to write, I spent a lot of time taking notes on what other people wanted me to write. My work week began every Monday morning with the show meeting. About ten producers gathered in the conference room with copies of the rundown for the episode that would tape that Friday. As we looked at the rundown, someone passed out donuts. The amount of looking generally corresponded to how many donuts there were.
Finally someone said, “We started last week’s show with a cannibal who ate his own mother, it’s going to feel repetitive if we open this week with John Bruce Dahmer.”
Every fugitive was called by his full name. Mention Ted Bundy around the office and you’d get a blank stare, but talk about “Theodore Robert Bundy” and you could have a file the size of a phone book within seconds.
“But,” another producer chimed in, “it’s our best story. And last week’s cannibal ate his sister, not his mother. This is completely different.”
After about a half hour of hashing that around, we moved onto acts two and three. Now we were rolling. But by the time we got to act four, there was a problem.
“We’ve got too many Latinos at the front of the show. Maybe we could space them out?”
So we swapped out the Asian bank robber in act five for one of the Latino ax murderers in act two, but then the executive producer wondered if we should move in the Caucasian child molester from next week’s show. When this process was complete, the show was “locked,” which meant it was about as solid as a sand castle in high tide.
Then I went off to write the witty introductions that John Walsh tossed off at the beginning and end of each individual segment. I soon discovered that the process was like mad libs, with a typical introduction running along the lines of: “[name of crime] is a terrible tragedy. But even more terrible is the grief that has to be faced by [name of victim].” The tags were usually even simpler: “I need your help to catch this [name of reptile]. So please, if you’ve seen him, call our hotline at 1-800-CRIME-TV.”
After that I spent a couple of days writing and then I gave my script to the supervising producer, who offered a few helpful suggestions. Then we had a meeting with the co-executive producer, who hated everything I really liked and liked everything I really hated and sent me off with a batch of new ideas.
On Wednesday, we sat down for our first table reading. This involved the same ten producers who had been there at the show meeting on Monday, only this time there were no donuts and that seemed to dampen the mood. We started reading the script aloud, until someone said, “Should it be ‘I hope someone brings this snake to justice’ or ‘I want to bring this snake to justice?’”
“The second one’s more active,” the executive producer said. “I like it when John’s active.” Another producer disagreed. “It sounds too aggressive, it makes him sound like a vigilante.” We went back and forth on that for a while, and as usual the producer with a longer title won. But it was only the beginning of much haggling over each individual line. The script was changed and changed and changed again, until finally it was Friday: taping day. My job was to sit in the control room just off the set, which had more TV monitors than NASA. There was also a full crew of people to watch those monitors: a director, a technical director, an assistant director, and a director’s assistant. While the various directors directed, I listened as we taped the show to make sure that John read every word in the script exactly as it had been written.
There was always a lot of waiting, until I heard someone radio from the set, “John’s ready,” and then the flurry of activity began.
“Get me X up on the screen.”
“X is up.”
“We’re rolling on X.”
“Rolling on X.”
And there went John Walsh, mouthing the words we had agonized over all week. The show introduction went flawlessly, but we did it four more times just to be sure. Then there was some trouble doing the tag on the first segment. The first time he did it, the camera was out of focus. The second, he stumbled over a word. Take three, and there was a technical glitch. Then, finally, he was going great until I heard“...and I want to bring this lowlife to justice.”
“It’s perfect,” the director said. “On to the next setup.”
But my heart was pounding. Lowlife, I thought. He said lowlife. The script read “snake.” We’d argued about that line for six and a half hours, and John had negated all that effort with one wrong word. I could just let it go, but there was the chance that my boss would see the show on Saturday night and scream, “That’s not what was in the script!” So I had to alert all the directors in this room and all the people on the set that John Walsh had made a mistake, and he would have to do it over again, all because of me.
“Um,” I said, clearing my throat.
The director’s head spun around like the little girl’s in The Exorcist. “Yes?”
“John strayed a little teeny bit from the c-c-copy,” I stammered.
“He should’ve said snake.”
“He didn’t say snake?”
“He said lowlife.”
“Snake. Is that what it says in the teleprompter?” the director asked.
The teleprompter girl quickly scanned her copy. My heart was going faster than an escaped con over a prison wall. “Yes,” she said.
The director nodded. “Okay, let’s go again.”
On about 15 screens, I saw John glaring the way he did when we had a story about a child killer, and through the microphone, I heard him mutter, “Snake, lowlife, what the heck’s the difference?”
I was with John on that one. But if he’d been in the show meeting, maybe he would’ve understood.
Most weeks were a lot like that. I went to meetings, I wrote, I monitored John Walsh’s lines. Then, finally, after weeks of writing “If you’ve seen this lizard, call our hotline at 1-800-CRIME-TV,” I had a chance to work the hotline itself, taking calls from real tipsters around the country.
On TV, what you see is a lot of good-looking people in suits in the background behind John fielding calls, but those are the actors. The real work is done in the conference room 24 hours after the taping, when the show airs, by a lot of normal-looking people in sweat pants eating cold pizza.
There was a TV at the end of the conference room and a phone at each chair. I looked at mine, daring it to ring, and sure enough when the first segment—about a Vietnamese mobster—faded to commercial, the ringing began. Heart in my mouth, I picked it up. “America’s Most Wanted,” I said.
“Yeah, I can’t figure out what to do after I click on start.”
“Is this tech support?”
“It’s America’s Most Wanted,” I said.
“Oh, sorry. Wrong number.”
I’d barely hung up the phone when it rang again.
“I’ve seen him,” the woman said before I could even say hello. “That Asian guy.”
“Really?” I grabbed a pencil and a tip sheet and asked, “Where?”
“He was my waiter. At this Chinese restaurant.”
I scribbled furiously, sure that we were only moments from catching this vicious killer. But when I handed the tip sheet over to the detective handling the case, he raised an eyebrow at me.
“Another restaurant, huh?” he said.
Over the next two hours I received more tips on John Pho, all of which claimed he was a waiter at Chinese and Thai restaurants ranging from Billings, Montana to Miami, Florida. A few other people thought they had seen him in Wal-Mart and one was sure he was her next door neighbor.
We never caught the Vietnamese gangster, but we did make plenty of other captures. Whenever the news came into the office, word would spread from desk to desk like a tidal wave. As soon as the chatter reached my boss, he would march into the conference room and write the fugitive’s name on the wall in magic marker. Everyone would gather around, watching in awe, and feel a sense of pride at a job well done. Sometimes I wondered what would happen when it was time to repaint the conference room, but I never asked.
Finally, after two years at America’s Most Wanted, I wanted to test my skills as a television writer by moving to Los Angeles. But it was a bittersweet departure.
When the taping was over that Friday, I saw John Walsh standing outside his dressing room. “I heard you’re leaving us, Adam,” he said, and I admitted that I was. “Watch out for yourself in L.A. It’s a dangerous place.” I didn’t know if he wanted me to be careful of the assorted snakes, lizards, and other reptiles who slithered along the mean streets of the city, or of the people I’d meet in the television industry. I looked at him, hoping he would elaborate, but he just smiled.
Adam Meyer is a television writer, screenwriter, novelist, teacher, and against his better judgement, commercial actor.
In The Big Dig, Carlotta Carlyle, red-tressed, six-foot-one former cop, parks and locks her cab to take an undercover job as a secretary in a construction company involved in the aforementioned Big Dig—the never-ending project to construct a tunnel through downtown Boston. The Dig, considered the largest urban development in history, has already passed the 14 billion dollar limit. Carlotta is supposed to suss out evidence of fraud within her company. At the same time, she takes on a moonlighting missing persons case. Barnes is one of the better PI practitioners and, true to the breed, concocts a tale in which both investigations connect. A tidy, smartly wrapped package, well-narrated by actress Bernadette Quigley.
Three law-abiding citizens decide almost as a lark to steal valuable paintings from the storage rooms of Scotland’s National Gallery during an annual “Doors Open Day” when the public is invited inside a variety of cultural and social institutions. Mike Mackenzie, software millionaire, does it because he’s bored. His friend Allan Cruickshank does it because he’s dissatisfied with his tame life as a banker. And art professor Robert Gissing is morally outraged that thousands of works of art are hidden away in private hands and in museum storehouses. They are all game, but pulling off the heist requires some know-how they don’t have. Gissing ropes in a clever art student whose portfolio consists of uncannily accurate copies of the masters with signature anachronisms. Mackenzie calls in an old school chum, Chib Calloway, to help with the heavy end of the armed robbery. Unfortunately, Calloway, who runs a number of criminal enterprises in Edinburgh, is behind on payments to a European biker gang and decides to thicken the plot with predictably nail-biting results. Written originally as a serial for The New York Times Magazine, Rankin has developed this trim story into an entertaining character study. Though this diversion doesn’t have the gritty urban density of the author‘s John Rebus books, Rankin has a seemingly effortless ability to tell a good and suspenseful yarn.
Red-haired Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old, pigtailed, chemistry whiz with a penchant for science. In this charming mystery set in 1950, her sleuthing skills both amaze and amuse. Flavia has her very own laboratory on the top floor of the east wing of Buckshaw, her family's unusual 300-year-old manor, where she brews formulas (poisons are a particular favorite) and plots revenge on her two older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia. Other zany relatives include her stamp-collecting, if somewhat remote and bemused, father and a cast of family retainers.
In The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, her second outing, Flavia again matches wits with local Inspector Hewitt, this time to solve the death of famous puppeteer, Rupert Porson. The puppetmaster ends, literally, with a bang when he is electrocuted at the conclusion a charity show featuring his imaginative puppets. The puppeteer's unlikely demise connects to a long ago death in the village and puts Flavia at the forefront of the story as she befriends Porson's coworkers and mingles with villagers to unravel the method and motive behind the murder. In this mystery, subtle humor abounds—the kind that kids who know they're really smarter than adults thrive on. It's Harry Potter territory without wizards and with more erudite writing. Canadian author Bradley won the Debut Dagger Award of the Crime Writers Association for his first mystery, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which also featured the derring-do of Flavia. If Bradley's characters don't make it to the big screen, someone out there is reading the wrong stuff.
Zaftig PI Savannah Reid and her former police partner, Detective Sergeant Dirk Coulter, are challenged by an intriguing murder case centered among rich and famous Californians. Although it stretches credibility a bit to believe that Coulter would allow a civilian (even his former police and donut-munching partner) to become involved in a murder investigation, Coulter takes Savannah along when the body of Maria Wellman, wife of a snarky but very wealthy diet doctor, is found dead on the beach below the palatial home the couple shared on a cliff high above the Pacific Ocean.
Maria's death spurs a close look at the checkered past of her husband, a high-profile doctor made rich from pitching diet aid CDs on television. His entourage of former friends, lovers, and enemies also come under scrutiny offering ample opportunity for McKevett to introduce true-to-life and frequently funny characters: an enraged mother whose hapless daughter is pregnant with the doctor's child; a former brother-in-law who contends his ghost-busting equipment was stolen by the doctor; and Savannah's own quirky and beloved grandmother. A plethora of twists and turns produces multiple surprises, culminating in a second, more vicious murder. This is Reid's 15th outing in a series that continues to intrigue with its mix of mayhem and mischief.
When Professor Karen Pelletier's only competitor for a coveted tenure position, Professor Joseph Lone Wolf, is found dead, she should be happy she's now a shoo-in for the job. Instead, she's the police's number one suspect and being hounded by a detective with a grudge against Karen's boyfriend. Knowing the lead detective is focused on her, Karen's begins her own search for the killer while navigating the cutthroat world of academia, where political correctness may have finally gone too far and played a hand in the professor's death.
Death Without Tenure, author Joanne Dobson's sixth Karen Pelletier mystery, is a deliciously ironic peek into the minefield that is modern day in academia. Karen has been pushing the boundaries of what's accepted as literature for years, but suddenly sees her chances at tenure slipping away because the chair of the English department may be too politically correct .
Fit the murder of a Native American professor into the mix, and the result is a well-paced mystery that exposes much of the hypocrisy and inadequacies of life behind the academic curtain. Death Without Tenure may not be for all readers, some familiarity with academic language and ethnic studies goes a long way in translating some of the dialogue and in-jokes. And while making the main character the prime suspect is a bit clichéd, the unraveling mystery of who Professor Joe Lone Wolf is, or was, more than makes up for it.
Nancy Martin has taken an unexpected (to me, at least) detour from her popular series featuring the Blackbird sisters, her déclassé heiresses from Philadelphia's Main Line. Martin's new mystery moves from southeastern Pennsylvania to gritty southwestern Pennsylvania—working class Pittsburgh, to be specific. From blue blood to blue-collar, Martin makes the transition with grace.
Our Lady of Immaculate Deception showcases Roxy Abruzzo, who makes her living by scavenging and salvaging artifacts from buildings undergoing renovation and demolition. Roxy is tough, smart, and connected to the mob through her Uncle Carmine. She is also the devoted, young, single mother of a promising teenaged daughter, fathered by her then (and sometimes now)boyfriend, sexy chef Patrick Flynn. Moreover, Roxy is self-appointed caretaker of‘ Nooch, a somewhat dimwitted childhood friend, who needs her (unsuccessful) help in staying out of trouble with the law. Unfortunately, though, trouble is omnipresent, as Roxy discovers when she‘ liberates a neglected, but apparently valuable, Greek statue from the fire-ravaged mansion (soon to become murder scene) of a scion of a wealthy Pittsburgh steel family. The sculpture proves to be even more precious than anticipated, and Roxy must fend off the attempts of multiple interested parties vying to gain possession of it.
Martin skillfully sustains the suspense as the book hurtles to its startling conclusion. Our Lady of Immaculate Deception is an unusually deft presentation of class struggle in history-fraught, post-industrial Pittsburgh. In Roxy Abruzzo, Martin introduces a remarkable protagonist who will, I hope, make many return appearances.
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