My Book: Blowing Off Steam
Barbara Fister

fister_barbaraWriting helps me figure out what I think and feel, and it helps me blow off steam when I’m frustrated.


My series character is an ex-cop named Anni Koskinen. She’s my height and weight, but more of her weight is muscle and, unlike me, she’s of mixed race, is brave, and knows how to kick ass when necessary. Anni is trying to figure out what to do with her life after resigning from the Chicago Police Department. Her career ended when she was summoned to testify in a brutality case against a fellow officer. She took her oath seriously and ended up sacrificing the only job she ever wanted.

As I worked on Through the Cracks, my first book about Anni, I hoped that the plot, which concerns the US government’s chipping away of civil liberties in the name of national security, would be out of date before it was published, but sadly surveillance of dissidents and loss of privacy persist, even with a new administration. A recent report documents over 2,000 instances in which the FBI abused its power to seize telephone records illegally.

Anni took an oath to defend the Constitution; I and my fellow librarians don’t take oaths, but we take civil liberties seriously. It was a proud day for my profession when an unnamed FBI agent was quoted in the New York Times blaming “radical militant librarians” for calling attention to flaws in the so-called Patriot Act. Hey, just doing our job.

fister_throughthecracksMy new book, Through the Cracks, got its irritable start as I listened to defenses of the use of torture, a practice as ineffective as it is morally wrong. In Chicago, an influential police commander had for years instructed the detectives under his command to get confessions any way they could, and torture was commonly used. What bothered me was not just the violation of the rights of the accused, but the disrespect it showed the victims and their families. Why bother looking for the real offender when it’s so much easier to pick a guy off the street and force a confession out of him? I wondered how the victims felt when those innocent men were set free.

In Through the Cracks Anni tries to find out who raped her client two decades ago and may have continued assaulting women ever since. It’s also the story of the man who spent more than half of his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And it’s about a present day crime in which the arrest of an undocumented Mexican gang member has inflamed anti-immigrant feelings.

There are a few other issues tucked in to Through the Cracks, too. I have a lot of steam to blow off!

Through the Cracks, Barbara Fister, Minotaur Books, May 2010, $25.99

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 12:12

Writing helps me figure out what I think and feel, and it helps me blow off steam when I’m frustrated.

My Book: Dodge City Run by the Mounties
Vicki Delany

delany_prospectorsThe late Sir Peter Ustinov once said that Toronto was New York run by the Swiss. I like to say that Dawson, Yukon, in 1898, was Dodge City run by the the Mounties.

An 1898 photograph of hopeful prospectors climbing Chilkoot Pass, headed for the Klondike gold fields. Chilkoot Pass was too steep for horses so a prospector had to climb through the pass 30-40 times in order to bring in the required year's worth of supplies. Photo: Keystone View Company.

Imagine a place in the wilderness, close to the Arctic Circle, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, at the end of the 19th century. A place of no roads, no cars, no trains, no telephone, no telegraph. Accessible only by water, for just a few months a year, or by paths over mountains so steep that horses couldn’t make it. And then imagine tens of thousands of people arriving in this place within a matter of months.

What you would get in almost any other place and any other time would be bedlam. Chaos and anarchy and lawlessness.

This is the setting for my new book, Gold Fever, the second in the Klondike Gold Rush Series, following 2009’s Gold Digger, from RendezVous Crime.

Given that background, you would think that I would have a plethora of scenes of historical murder and mayhem to write about in the books.

You would be wrong.

Because what all those miners and dance hall owners, prostitutes and pimps, bartenders and adventurers, and businessmen (respectable and shady) found when they at long last arrived in the promised land, was the long arm of the law waiting for them, in the form of the North West Mounted Police (precursors of the RCMP).

The border between Canada and the US was at that time still in dispute. The Canadian government had established a police presence in order to strengthen their claim. Prostitution and gambling were illegal in all parts of Canada, but the NWMP recognized, wisely in my opinion, that some things were going to happen whether they were legal or not, and some control was better than none. Thus prostitution was practiced openly and dance halls all had a gambling room. Police oversight was strict and they could, and did, close down any business stepping over the line. However, there were things the Mounties didn’t bend on—the use of “vile language” was an offense, and Sunday closing was strictly observed. People were jailed for chopping wood on a Sunday. Firearms were strictly banned. Every person coming into the Territory was required to have a year’s supply of goods with them: a lesson learned during the previous winter when the town nearly starved. Not only did all those adventure and gold seekers have to climb the Chilkoot Pass they had to do it about 30 or 40 times to get all their gear up. Tougher people than me I can tell you.

delany_goldfeverIn 1898, the year of the height of the gold rush, when the town of Dawson had a population of 40,000, there was not one murder in town. Not one. Reports I have read say that people were comfortable leaving their doors unlocked and their possessions out in the open. In contrast to the nearby town of Skagway, Alaska, where gangsters such as Soapy Smith ruled and crime and corruption were rampant. Soapy himself was killed in a shootout on the Skagway boardwalk in July 1898.

In Dawson, a town where a one-minute dance with a dance hall girl cost a dollar, a bottle of champagne could set you back 40 bucks, and successful miners were known to drop a thousand, ten thousand dollars (all in 1898 funds!) in a night in the casino, a constable in the NWMP earned $1.25 a day (roughly the rate for a laborer in the Outside). Yet the police were largely incorruptible.

In order to create a mystery novel, I had to jettison the sterling record of the NWMP and create a murder. In the second book in the series, Gold Fever, there are two. And, despite one of the main characters in the series being a NWMP officer, the Mounties will prove unable to solve the crime and it will be left to my protagonist, dance hall owner and woman with a past, Fiona MacGillivray, to do so.

Sometimes you just can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Gold Fever, Vicki Delany, RendezVous Crime, March 2010, $18.95

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 12:12

The late Sir Peter Ustinov once said that Toronto was New York run by the Swiss. I like to say that Dawson, Yukon, in 1898, was Dodge City run by the the Mounties.

My Book: the Book of Spies
Gayle Lynds

lynds_gayleI never thought I’d write The Book of Spies, my new espionage thriller. In fact, it made no sense to write it. I was crazy to write it.


For 20 years I told myself that.

It had all begun simply enough. On June 28, 1989, my attention was riveted by “Kremlin Tunnels: The Secret of Moscow’s Underworld,” an article in The Los Angeles Times:

In 1933 two young men found what they were searching for: the entrance to a centuries-old underground tunnel within sight of the red Kremlin walls. As they crept underground toward Moscow’s seat of power, lighting their way with a lantern, the men believed they might find Ivan the Terrible’s legendary library of gold-covered books. Instead they found five skeletons, a passageway sometimes so narrow that they had to file through singly and, within a few hundred yards of the Kremlin, a rusted steel door they could not open.

I was enthralled by this “library of gold-covered books,” which immediately became in my mind the Library of Gold. Kremlin officials stopped the young pair’s exploration and swore them to secrecy with the implied threat of death, then Stalin ordered a swimming pool built over the area, putting a conclusive end to anyone’s investigation there.

But for five centuries not only ordinary people but emperors, potentates, and even the Vatican had been searching for the library, which contained some 800 illuminated manuscripts. The books were fabulous, covered in gold and encrusted with gems, and they were priceless in knowledge, containing lost works dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. In today’s financial terms the library would sell for about $4 billion.

lynds_bookofspiesNaturally I found the Library of Gold fascinating. If I could figure out a way for the library to play a pivotal role in one of the modern spy thrillers I write, I’d be able to dramatize not only governments and espionage, but also books and readers—people like us.

I spent nearly 20 years in a futile attempt, periodically researching, making notes, and checking to see whether anyone had found the library. Then in 2008 I had a eureka moment. If a book club owned the library.... If it was the most dangerous book club in the world.... If this cabal of powerful men were so rich they could buy terrorists.... Then the CIA would be motivated enough to try to do something no one else had ever done—find Ivan the Terrible’s long-lost library of gold-covered books.

Next I needed exciting new characters. First Eva Blake, a rare-books curator, appeared. Her dead husband had been one of the world’s leading experts on the library. Then I found Judd Ryder, who’s just retired from military intelligence. His father was somehow involved with the library. Add a CIA black unit, political motivations, and a warlord in Afghanistan, and finally...I had a novel.

It’s called The Book of Spies. And what is The Book of Spies? One of the gorgeous old volumes in the Library of Gold.

The Book of Spies, Gayle Lynds, St. Martin’s Press, March 2010, $25.99

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #114.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 01:12

I never thought I’d write The Book of Spies, my new espionage thriller. In fact, it made no sense to write it. I was crazy to write it.

My Book: Destiny Fulfilled
Kenneth Wishnia

wishnia_kennethI was born on a hot August night back when fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room. They were expected to spend hours pacing around the waiting room while chain-smoking cigarettes. My father found a mystery novel lying on a table and began reading, and several hours later, when the doctor returned to tell him that his wife had given birth and he could go in to see her, my father replied, “Hold on, there are only twenty pages left and I’ve got to find out whodunit.” So you see that I was destined to become a mystery writer.

I broke in back in 1998 when my first novel, 23 Shades of Black (published under the name K.j.a. Wishnia), was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. But after five novels and a number of short stories, I jumped off the book-a-year merry-go-round to immerse myself in an idea that I’d wanted to work on for a long time: a Jewish-themed historical novel set in the late 16th century.

The 30-second version of the plot: It’s Holy Week of the year 1592. Rudolf II is king of the Protestant land of Bohemia, where the Catholic Church has been reclaiming territory lost during the Reformation. It is also Passover Eve in the Jewish section of the imperial city of Prague, when the body of a Christian girl is found in a Jewish shop and the Jews are given three days to produce the guilty party or the whole community is threatened with annihilation. My detective, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, is a young Talmudic scholar who works as the synagogue’s shammes—a word often translated as “sexton,” which may well be the origin of the modern word shamus. He’s also well versed in Midrash (and the root of midrash means “to investigate”).

I grew up in a secular household where the primary emblems of Jewish culture were bagels and Woody Allen movies, so I had to embark on a three-year course of self-education, reading Jewish commentary on the Bible, mysticism, philosophy, history, linguistics (how many people know that the Ashkenazic Jews pronounce Hebrew differently from the Sephardic Jews?), and extracts from the Mishnah, Talmud, and other Rabbinic writings. I visited Prague Castle and the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew (of the Golem legends), and gathered old maps and postcards to help recreate the layout of the old Prague ghetto, which was the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time.

wishnia_the5thservantThen I started writing. Oy vey iz mir. I spent more than three years writing and revising a novel that was so far outside my comfort zone at first that I had to stop constantly to look things up. Q: Did they have matches in 1592? A: They did not. Q: When did the word taboo enter the language? A: Captain Cook brought it back from the South Sea Islands in the 1770s (I had to use forbidden instead). Q: What about the word fossil? A: In the modern sense, it dates from the 1660s, but in the sense of “some really old stuff dug up out of the ground” it was used as early as the 1560s. Q: What kinds of handguns were available in the 1590s? A: An astonishing variety. [see photo]

I also learned something about the wisdom of the Talmud, which was compiled back in the 5th-6th centuries C.E., yet it abolishes capital punishment, protects a person on trial from self-incrimination, establishes publicly-funded education, permits birth control in certain circumstances, and declares that the rights of the working man always take precedence over those of his employer.

And to think that I owe it all to a random mystery novel whose title has been lost to the memory hole of time.

Oh, and by the way, when Mercy was giving birth to our two children, I was in the delivery room with her to see it happen.

The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia, William Morrow, January 2010, $25.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 02:12

wishnia_kennethI was born on a hot August night back when fathers weren’t allowed in the delivery room. They were expected to spend hours pacing around the waiting room while chain-smoking cigarettes. My father found a mystery novel lying on a table and began reading, and several hours later, when the doctor returned to tell him that his wife had given birth and he could go in to see her, my father replied, “Hold on, there are only twenty pages left and I’ve got to find out whodunit.” So you see that I was destined to become a mystery writer.

I broke in back in 1998 when my first novel, 23 Shades of Black (published under the name K.j.a. Wishnia), was nominated for Edgar and Anthony awards. But after five novels and a number of short stories, I jumped off the book-a-year merry-go-round to immerse myself in an idea that I’d wanted to work on for a long time: a Jewish-themed historical novel set in the late 16th century.

The 30-second version of the plot: It’s Holy Week of the year 1592. Rudolf II is king of the Protestant land of Bohemia, where the Catholic Church has been reclaiming territory lost during the Reformation. It is also Passover Eve in the Jewish section of the imperial city of Prague, when the body of a Christian girl is found in a Jewish shop and the Jews are given three days to produce the guilty party or the whole community is threatened with annihilation. My detective, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, is a young Talmudic scholar who works as the synagogue’s shammes—a word often translated as “sexton,” which may well be the origin of the modern word shamus. He’s also well versed in Midrash (and the root of midrash means “to investigate”).

I grew up in a secular household where the primary emblems of Jewish culture were bagels and Woody Allen movies, so I had to embark on a three-year course of self-education, reading Jewish commentary on the Bible, mysticism, philosophy, history, linguistics (how many people know that the Ashkenazic Jews pronounce Hebrew differently from the Sephardic Jews?), and extracts from the Mishnah, Talmud, and other Rabbinic writings. I visited Prague Castle and the grave of Rabbi Judah Loew (of the Golem legends), and gathered old maps and postcards to help recreate the layout of the old Prague ghetto, which was the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time.

wishnia_the5thservantThen I started writing. Oy vey iz mir. I spent more than three years writing and revising a novel that was so far outside my comfort zone at first that I had to stop constantly to look things up. Q: Did they have matches in 1592? A: They did not. Q: When did the word taboo enter the language? A: Captain Cook brought it back from the South Sea Islands in the 1770s (I had to use forbidden instead). Q: What about the word fossil? A: In the modern sense, it dates from the 1660s, but in the sense of “some really old stuff dug up out of the ground” it was used as early as the 1560s. Q: What kinds of handguns were available in the 1590s? A: An astonishing variety. [see photo]

I also learned something about the wisdom of the Talmud, which was compiled back in the 5th-6th centuries C.E., yet it abolishes capital punishment, protects a person on trial from self-incrimination, establishes publicly-funded education, permits birth control in certain circumstances, and declares that the rights of the working man always take precedence over those of his employer.

And to think that I owe it all to a random mystery novel whose title has been lost to the memory hole of time.

Oh, and by the way, when Mercy was giving birth to our two children, I was in the delivery room with her to see it happen.

The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia, William Morrow, January 2010, $25.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

My Book: the Copywriter Did It
Wendy Clinch

clinch_wendy_2It was a wastewater treatment plant that finally got me.

Over my many years in advertising, I’d written about all sorts of things: pumps for oil refineries; machinery for grinding up garbage; chemicals for cleaning metal parts—in other words, things that you don’t find in the grocery store. Ugly things and unpleasant ones.

I’d gone into advertising because I liked to write. It seemed sexy and exciting, and I pictured myself working on fashion, cosmetics, resorts in the Caribbean. Instead, day after day, year after year, I worked in the down and dirty back rooms of what’s charitably called business-to-business advertising, cranking out ads that appeared in magazines with names like Modern Concrete, Pulp & Paper, Water & Waste Processing, and Iron Age. Not one ounce of glamour in it. And not much fun, either.

So when a client needed an ad for a sludge management process (we all know what sludge is in wastewater treatment, right?), I figured it was time to take a step back. Time to reconsider. Was this really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life?

clinch_wendyDefinitely not.

Was there a way out?

You bet there was.

I decided to quit the 9-to-5 world and become a ski bum.

Unlike advertising, ski bumming has a long and illustrious heritage. Mostly it consists of 1) sleeping in your car in sub-zero temperatures or cramming into a low-rent, shoebox-sized room with ten of your closest friends; 2) taking a more-or-less menial job that lets you ski as much as possible and 3) surviving on ramen noodles, popcorn, and free chicken wings at bars (or mooching off friends with money).

For me, however, being a ski bum was just the ticket. More than anything other than my family, I loved to ski.

My husband took a little convincing. “Aren’t you a little old for this?” he said, then dodged my flying shoe. My 25-year-old daughter thought it was a little odd, too. “Is this a midlife crisis?” she asked.

I did have my limits. I drew the line at sleeping in cars and eating ramen noodles.

Instead, we bought a small house in a small Vermont ski town, and I got a job at a ski shop working weekends so I could ski during the week. Life was good. Why had I waited so long to do this? And what if I hadn’t waited?

clinch_doubleblackSince I couldn’t very well go back in time to find out, I decided to create an alter ego to explore the life I might have lived if I’d taken a different path.

Enter Stacey Curtis, the heroine of my debut novel, Double Black. She’s young, spirited, intelligent, and an avid skier. She ditches her cheating fiancé and moves to a Vermont ski town, where she tends bar at night and skis during the day. Poverty forces her to sleep in her car, until one day she stumbles across a ring of master keys for the area’s vacation condos. Since the condos are unoccupied most of the time, she reasons, “Why not put them to good use?” So she begins going from condo to condo, spending one night here, one night there, until late one night she opens a door and discovers—a dead body.

Double Black is loaded with New England atmosphere, quirky characters, and more twists and turns than a slalom course. Though it’s fun for skiers, it’s just as much fun for people who’ve never visited the slopes. It was a pleasure to write, since it gave me the chance not only to explore what might have been, but to indulge my love of skiing during the off season.

And best of all, there’s not a single reference to sludge management in the whole thing.

Double Black, by Wendy Clinch, Minotaur, January 2010, $24.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 02:12

clinch_wendy_2It was a wastewater treatment plant that finally got me.

Over my many years in advertising, I’d written about all sorts of things: pumps for oil refineries; machinery for grinding up garbage; chemicals for cleaning metal parts—in other words, things that you don’t find in the grocery store. Ugly things and unpleasant ones.

I’d gone into advertising because I liked to write. It seemed sexy and exciting, and I pictured myself working on fashion, cosmetics, resorts in the Caribbean. Instead, day after day, year after year, I worked in the down and dirty back rooms of what’s charitably called business-to-business advertising, cranking out ads that appeared in magazines with names like Modern Concrete, Pulp & Paper, Water & Waste Processing, and Iron Age. Not one ounce of glamour in it. And not much fun, either.

So when a client needed an ad for a sludge management process (we all know what sludge is in wastewater treatment, right?), I figured it was time to take a step back. Time to reconsider. Was this really what I wanted to do for the rest of my life?

clinch_wendyDefinitely not.

Was there a way out?

You bet there was.

I decided to quit the 9-to-5 world and become a ski bum.

Unlike advertising, ski bumming has a long and illustrious heritage. Mostly it consists of 1) sleeping in your car in sub-zero temperatures or cramming into a low-rent, shoebox-sized room with ten of your closest friends; 2) taking a more-or-less menial job that lets you ski as much as possible and 3) surviving on ramen noodles, popcorn, and free chicken wings at bars (or mooching off friends with money).

For me, however, being a ski bum was just the ticket. More than anything other than my family, I loved to ski.

My husband took a little convincing. “Aren’t you a little old for this?” he said, then dodged my flying shoe. My 25-year-old daughter thought it was a little odd, too. “Is this a midlife crisis?” she asked.

I did have my limits. I drew the line at sleeping in cars and eating ramen noodles.

Instead, we bought a small house in a small Vermont ski town, and I got a job at a ski shop working weekends so I could ski during the week. Life was good. Why had I waited so long to do this? And what if I hadn’t waited?

clinch_doubleblackSince I couldn’t very well go back in time to find out, I decided to create an alter ego to explore the life I might have lived if I’d taken a different path.

Enter Stacey Curtis, the heroine of my debut novel, Double Black. She’s young, spirited, intelligent, and an avid skier. She ditches her cheating fiancé and moves to a Vermont ski town, where she tends bar at night and skis during the day. Poverty forces her to sleep in her car, until one day she stumbles across a ring of master keys for the area’s vacation condos. Since the condos are unoccupied most of the time, she reasons, “Why not put them to good use?” So she begins going from condo to condo, spending one night here, one night there, until late one night she opens a door and discovers—a dead body.

Double Black is loaded with New England atmosphere, quirky characters, and more twists and turns than a slalom course. Though it’s fun for skiers, it’s just as much fun for people who’ve never visited the slopes. It was a pleasure to write, since it gave me the chance not only to explore what might have been, but to indulge my love of skiing during the off season.

And best of all, there’s not a single reference to sludge management in the whole thing.

Double Black, by Wendy Clinch, Minotaur, January 2010, $24.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

My Book: the Serpent Pool
Martin Edwards

edwards_martinBooks burn in the opening scene of my fourth and latest Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool. And the man who owns the books, an avid collector called George Saffell, watches bound and helpless as the flames race toward him.


It is a dark opening to a novel set in a beautiful part of the world. The Lake District’s landscape is fascinating at any time, and the main action of The Serpent Pool takes place at the start of a new year in the cold days of early January, when fog descends from the fell slopes, and the forecasters warn of avalanches. Researching the real-life scenes of the fictional events of my book was enthralling (at least for me—my teenage children would prefer me to research a series set on the world’s sunniest beaches…) Few areas anywhere that are as small as England’s Lake District (it is roughly 30 miles across) can boast such a rich literary tradition. William Wordsworth was the most famous of the Lake Poets, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey still have admirers. Among novelists, Hugh Walpole (whose few crime novels are well worth a look), Melvyn Bragg, and nowadays Sarah Hall, have all used the landscape of the Lakes to great effect. As an essayist, Thomas De Quincey (who lived in the lovely Dove Cottage, former home of the Wordsworths) is beyond compare.

De Quincey’s dark shadow falls over The Serpent Pool. Apart from Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, a masterpiece of hallucinatory writing, he was most famous for “On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and this inspires Daniel Kind to study his work while writing a book about the history of murder. In so doing, Daniel encounters a range of characters with something to hide, including the secret behind the violent death of George Saffell. I hadn’t read De Quincey before working on this novel, and I came to admire his writing, even if I remain deeply unconvinced about the benefits of opium to the creative process.

edwards_serpentpoolWhile Daniel focuses on De Quincey, Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cold Case Review Team, investigates the unexplained death, six years ago, of a woman called Bethany Friend, who was drowned in an isolated patch of water known as the Serpent Pool. Hannah’s relationship with rare book dealer Marc Amos is on the skids, and as the winter weather worsens, the tension builds to a climax at the Serpent Pool. There Hannah comes to learn the truth. And when I wrote the final scene, I couldn’t help remembering that famous remark of Sherlock Holmes in The Copper Beeches: “It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

I can only hope the Lake District tourist authorities forgive me for introducing murder and mayhem into this most gorgeous of locations!

The Serpent Pool, Martin Edwards, Poisoned Pen Press, February 2010, $24.95/$14.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 02:12

Books burn in the opening scene of my fourth and latest Lake District Mystery, The Serpent Pool. And the man who owns the books, an avid collector called George Saffell, watches bound and helpless as the flames race toward him.

My Book: Revenge for Old Times' Sake
Kris Neri

neri_krisOne of my fantasies has always been to inherit an old wreck of a house stuffed to the rafters with what others might describe as “junk,” but which I’d consider “treasures.”


Since nobody in my family ever owned such a place, the odds of one falling into my hands seem slim. But like all writers, I can live out my fantasies through my characters. My mysteries featuring Tracy Eaton, the daughter of eccentric Hollywood stars Martha Collins and Alec Grainger, provided the perfect vehicles.

I knew just where to place my dream home. Rimming the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles is a picturesque sandstone mountain range called the Simi Hills. Today that rocky area is mostly filled with suburban homes. But back in what would have been Martha and Alec’s heyday, it was all vast vistas and horse ranches, and a popular location setting for westerns. Some of the Hollywood crowd even built country homes there. I felt sure that Martha would have built a doozy of a house in that locale. The house contains more styles than a first year architectural textbook—it has a round room perched on one side of the second story and turret trim that looks as if it had been swiped from a castle—and I first used it in Dem Bones’ Revenge.

But in the third book, Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, when it becomes home to her and her husband, Drew, the house comes into its own to such an extent it’s like a character in the book.

First we meet the “angels” room, which is decorated in a fairly conventional manner—if you can overlook the small angels painted across its walls. Only with closer scrutiny does it become apparent they all resemble Martha’s film contemporaries, the people who actually occupied that room when they visited. Even knowing they were real people, Tracy might have found the sight of those angels peaceful—if one celestial spirit, who looked suspiciously like a leading man with whom her mother reportedly carried on a torrid dalliance, hadn’t been flashing her.

And then there’s the “chalkboard” room, with its blackboard walls. Martha always gave that guest room to artists and provided them with pastel chalk, encouraging them to create their own surroundings. Now, Tracy uses it to house her fastidious mother-in-law, Charlotte. While Tracy savors the sight of Charlotte anxiously rubbing at invisible spots, she amuses herself with the fantasy that her prissy mother-in-law has the D.T.’s.

neri_revengeforoldtimessakeBut the book’s action centers around the home’s gaudy Art Deco pool, where only hours after Tracy’s sweetie, Drew, bops his boorish boss, Ian Dragger, in the nose—Ian is found floating face down in the Eaton’s pool, deader than disco. And when the bodies in the pool start stacking up like logs in a lumber camp, it’s only because of the unusual resources in that crazy house that they’re able to hide one of the murders until Tracy can do a little of her unconventional sleuthing.

While writing Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, that house became so real to me, it was almost as if I could hear my own footsteps tapping against its Spanish tile floors, as if I could sit at the dining table built to resemble Stonehenge, as if I could actually work the trick carpet staircase runner that, when flicked just right, hurls someone down the steps. No real designer would think to offer a feature like that, but the runner comes in handy in Revenge for Old Times’ Sake.

I no longer live in the area where I set that book, but when I did, I would exit from the freeway, detouring through the winding roads in those hills hoping for a glimpse of some real old monstrosity perched on one of those rocky knolls that approximated the house I saw in my mind’s eye. I did spot some special homes, but none with the flair that I felt sure Tracy’s reality-challenged mother would bring to hers.

I may never get to live out my secret house fantasy in real life, but I got to experience it through Tracy, in the writing of this book. And now, so will my readers.

Revenge for Old Times’ Sake, Kris Neri, Cherokee McGhee, March 2010, $16.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 02:12

One of my fantasies has always been to inherit an old wreck of a house stuffed to the rafters with what others might describe as “junk,” but which I’d consider “treasures.”

My Book: Slaying the Dragon
Kelli Stanley

stanley_grocery"It was raw, it was lovely, it was monstrous and frightening and made you catch your breath when you looked at it. It was San Francisco in 1940."


A San Francisco grocery store on December 8, 1942, the day after Pearl Harbor. The store was closed and the owner, who was of Japanese descent, was sent to an internment camp. Photo: Dorothea Lange/Library of Congress.


In his introduction to the Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote that the possibilities of the mystery form were not yet exhausted; a classic ideal not yet reached. Which is one reason, he asserts, that “otherwise reasonable people continue to assault the citadel.”

More than half a century later, Chandler is, of course, a classic himself, though still not in the ideal sense he meant. Writers keep coming up with new spins on the old ways of murder, fooling us and delighting us and beguiling us with reinventions of the familiar crime scene. I am constantly amazed by my colleagues’ ingenuity, inventiveness, and creativity…and marvel at how it all seems new again.

This partly explains my own windmill tilting. City Of Dragons is set in 1940 San Francisco, smack-dab in an iconic age in an iconic town. I sought to meet what is now “classic” noir head-on, in a reincarnation of both a film noir feel and an ode to my chief influences as a writer…but to do so without gloves on, without the censorship of the era, and without a blanket of nostalgia to keep it all safe and warm.

Which leads me to another reason I wrote the book. I’ve always been drawn to this era emotionally. As a little kid I listened to old radio shows on records, and my favorite magazine was Nostalgia Illustrated. I felt the pull, the yearning to go home to a time I couldn’t know, and one that my parents—who were born in ’39—barely remembered.

stanley_cityofdragonsI am still captivated by the sweet swinging sounds of big band and gasp at the streamlined Chrysler Building. But I also know that amidst the beauty, the slow tempo, the innocence of two World’s Fairs and a man-made island on San Francisco Bay, there were other things going on there. Hate. Racism. Violence and degradation. San Francisco—that glorious, bustling, middle-class jewel of a city—the town of Herb Caen and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, of Italian cioppino on Fisherman’s Wharf and cable cars on Powell Street—San Francisco was beautiful. But also segregated, corrupt, and on some levels as ugly as a later generation’s vision of apocalypse.

So I confronted my own dragon…how to show both sides of the time and place; how to pay tribute to a simpler era, but not excuse it or bowdlerize it or castrate it. It was raw, it was lovely, it was monstrous and frightening and made you catch your breath when you looked at it. It was San Francisco in 1940.

The book is set mostly in Chinatown…one city of dragons within another. Chinese-Americans raised money for war relief against Japan, boycotted Japanese businesses. Yet Japanese families lived in Chinatown, too; Japanese stores and hotels lined Grant Avenue. And when a young Japanese-American numbers runner is gunned down during a festival for war relief—no one wants to know why. No one, of course, except Miranda Corbie.

Miranda is what I think a real femme fatale might have been like. She was a nurse in the Spanish Civil War and an escort when she came back home. Now she’s a private eye, a bad girl wearing the shamus suit. And like her predecessors, she’s willing to walk down some mean streets in pursuit of justice.

I hope you’ll take the journey back to 1940 with me, and with Miranda as your guide.

And don’t be afraid of the dragons.

City of Dragons, Kelli Stanley, Minotaur Books, February 2010, $24.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 05:12

"It was raw, it was lovely, it was monstrous and frightening and made you catch your breath when you looked at it. It was San Francisco in 1940."

My Book: Laser Accuracy
Thomas Kaufman

kaufman_thomasWhen I was writing Drink the Tea, my debut novel about a scam artist turned PI, I was fortunate to have shot and directed episodes of The Prosecutors for the Discovery Channel. By working on this series, as well as The New Detectives and The FBI Files, I spent lots of time with cops and heard some great stories. I used a lot of this material in Drink the Tea. I also heard stories that I haven’t been able to find a place for—yet. This story is one of them.

One of the prosecuting attorneys I filmed—let’s call him Frank—told me about a case that involved a 60-something man who lived alone.

One night the man looked out his living room window to see a young man trying to pry a pair of fancy headlights from a car. The older man grabbed a gun and shot the young guy dead. When the cops came they entered the older man’s house and found he had a regular arsenal—handguns, automatic weapons. An assortment of illegal and deadly pieces. He also had racist posters on the walls, like a silhouette of a black man running, with arrows pointing to different body parts and how many points given for each part.

Now the prosecutors prepare for trial. The defense attorney, who Frank says is a total jerk, claims the old guy was only trying to wound the kid, not kill him. This lawyer pays $5,000 to have a firearms expert examine the gun.

“Why?” I ask.

Frank shrugs. “I don’t know, what can they find out? We’ve done the ballistics, we know that’s the gun he used to kill the kid. But we say, “Sure, you wanna spend five grand and see the gun? Fine. As long as we can be there, too.”

So the cops bring in the gun, and Frank sticks around to watch.

The expert takes the gun in his hands and asks if he can dismantle it. Frank looks at the cops. The cops say okay. As the expert starts to take the barrel off, the spring snaps out of the gun and pieces fly across the room and batteries hit the floor.

kaufman_drinkthetea“Batteries?” I ask.

“Yeah, batteries.” Seems the gun had a laser sight that the cops were unaware of—up ‘til that moment. Thanks to the expert, now the cops know. When the batteries spill out, the defense attorney asks the expert, “What’re those for?”

“I’ll tell you later,” the expert says, trying to cover his gaffe. But it’s too late, the cops know. The laser sight is the kind that’s built into the handgun, placed just below the barrel and easy to miss.

From that moment, the laser sight becomes a focal point of the prosecution. During the trial, Frank tells the jury, not only did this man kill this kid, but he took the time to point a laser sight at the kid’s head before he pulled the trigger. Then the cops show the jury the laser sight in action—it projects a beam of light 35 feet. The jury is impressed, and they convict the guy and he does time.

“So the laser made it a done deal,” I say.

Frank smiles. “Yeah. What we didn’t say is that particular laser sight was totally worthless—it was never calibrated. See, a bullet travels in an arc, while a laser goes in a straight line. So after you buy the piece, you’d have to have it calibrated for the laser sight to be accurate.”

“But didn’t the defense attorney mention that?” I ask.

“Nope. Maybe it didn’t occur to the ‘expert,’” he says, making quote signs in the air. “But it wasn’t our job to talk about calibration. We kept that information to ourselves. I guess five grand doesn’t get you much of an expert, does it?”

As I packed up my camera gear, I made a mental note never to commit a crime in Frank’s jurisdiction. Now all I have to do for my next book is think up a character with a laser-sighted gun. How hard can that be?

Drink the Tea, Thomas Kaufman, Minotaur Books, March 2010, $24.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 05:12

kaufman_thomasWhen I was writing Drink the Tea, my debut novel about a scam artist turned PI, I was fortunate to have shot and directed episodes of The Prosecutors for the Discovery Channel. By working on this series, as well as The New Detectives and The FBI Files, I spent lots of time with cops and heard some great stories. I used a lot of this material in Drink the Tea. I also heard stories that I haven’t been able to find a place for—yet. This story is one of them.

One of the prosecuting attorneys I filmed—let’s call him Frank—told me about a case that involved a 60-something man who lived alone.

One night the man looked out his living room window to see a young man trying to pry a pair of fancy headlights from a car. The older man grabbed a gun and shot the young guy dead. When the cops came they entered the older man’s house and found he had a regular arsenal—handguns, automatic weapons. An assortment of illegal and deadly pieces. He also had racist posters on the walls, like a silhouette of a black man running, with arrows pointing to different body parts and how many points given for each part.

Now the prosecutors prepare for trial. The defense attorney, who Frank says is a total jerk, claims the old guy was only trying to wound the kid, not kill him. This lawyer pays $5,000 to have a firearms expert examine the gun.

“Why?” I ask.

Frank shrugs. “I don’t know, what can they find out? We’ve done the ballistics, we know that’s the gun he used to kill the kid. But we say, “Sure, you wanna spend five grand and see the gun? Fine. As long as we can be there, too.”

So the cops bring in the gun, and Frank sticks around to watch.

The expert takes the gun in his hands and asks if he can dismantle it. Frank looks at the cops. The cops say okay. As the expert starts to take the barrel off, the spring snaps out of the gun and pieces fly across the room and batteries hit the floor.

kaufman_drinkthetea“Batteries?” I ask.

“Yeah, batteries.” Seems the gun had a laser sight that the cops were unaware of—up ‘til that moment. Thanks to the expert, now the cops know. When the batteries spill out, the defense attorney asks the expert, “What’re those for?”

“I’ll tell you later,” the expert says, trying to cover his gaffe. But it’s too late, the cops know. The laser sight is the kind that’s built into the handgun, placed just below the barrel and easy to miss.

From that moment, the laser sight becomes a focal point of the prosecution. During the trial, Frank tells the jury, not only did this man kill this kid, but he took the time to point a laser sight at the kid’s head before he pulled the trigger. Then the cops show the jury the laser sight in action—it projects a beam of light 35 feet. The jury is impressed, and they convict the guy and he does time.

“So the laser made it a done deal,” I say.

Frank smiles. “Yeah. What we didn’t say is that particular laser sight was totally worthless—it was never calibrated. See, a bullet travels in an arc, while a laser goes in a straight line. So after you buy the piece, you’d have to have it calibrated for the laser sight to be accurate.”

“But didn’t the defense attorney mention that?” I ask.

“Nope. Maybe it didn’t occur to the ‘expert,’” he says, making quote signs in the air. “But it wasn’t our job to talk about calibration. We kept that information to ourselves. I guess five grand doesn’t get you much of an expert, does it?”

As I packed up my camera gear, I made a mental note never to commit a crime in Frank’s jurisdiction. Now all I have to do for my next book is think up a character with a laser-sighted gun. How hard can that be?

Drink the Tea, Thomas Kaufman, Minotaur Books, March 2010, $24.99.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

My Book: Is Someone Watching Me?
Sarah Wisseman

wisseman_sarahMy husband Charlie, a retired pathologist, is a ghoul. On an airplane from Luxor to Cairo, Egypt, I told him I had a new plot for an archaeological mystery, The House of the Sphinx. He listened to my ideas for skullduggery set in the Temple of Luxor and the fabulous site of Karnak. “Fine,” he said. “But what about adding a little bioterrorism?”

This sparked an interesting discussion about which diseases could be used as bioweapons. Instead of reliving our wonderful visit to the Valley of the Kings, I grilled my husband on the symptoms and treatment for smallpox and how Europeans transmitted the disease to Native Americans using contaminated blankets.

Back home, I researched the terrifying saga of smallpox in books, articles, and on the Internet. Because it is a virus that is easy to transmit during the early and unrecognizable stages of the disease, smallpox is difficult to contain and treat. Over thirty percent of people who get sick die, and survivors are often blinded or otherwise disfigured. Officially, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979, but the virus stocks in select research facilities were never destroyed...

“What if,” I asked myself, “my archaeologist heroine stumbled upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox? What if there really was a stash of smallpox virus somewhere that terrorists could obtain and weaponize?” Not a new idea, I discovered, as I read Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer. Although nonfiction, it read like a thriller, and scared me silly. Preston’s descriptions of smallpox laboratories and frozen virus stashes in the former Soviet Union and Iraq provided me with plenty of fodder for further research, including how to manage a modern smallpox epidemic.

wisseman_houseofthesphinxMany writers now say, “write want you want to know,” instead of “write what you know.” I say, use what you know as a jumping off point for new research, no matter how grisly. I’m an archaeologist, not a physician or medical historian, but being married to a doctor has taught me just enough about medicine to be dangerous, to want to learn more. And perhaps I was getting a little tired of killing my villains with priceless Greek vases and Roman statues—it was time for a change.

A little research can make you paranoid. As I happily Googled how to turn frozen smallpox virus into a stable, disease-transmitting powder, I wondered if anyone was tracking my Internet use. Would someone show up on my doorstep to investigate me as a terrorist, and would being a mystery writer be a good enough excuse to get me off the hook? That didn’t happen, but I did discover my own ghoulish tendencies in my fascination with the story behind of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

The House of the Sphinx, Sarah Wisseman, Hilliard and Harris, December 2009, $17.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Teri Duerr
Monday, 19 December 2011 06:12

wisseman_sarahMy husband Charlie, a retired pathologist, is a ghoul. On an airplane from Luxor to Cairo, Egypt, I told him I had a new plot for an archaeological mystery, The House of the Sphinx. He listened to my ideas for skullduggery set in the Temple of Luxor and the fabulous site of Karnak. “Fine,” he said. “But what about adding a little bioterrorism?”

This sparked an interesting discussion about which diseases could be used as bioweapons. Instead of reliving our wonderful visit to the Valley of the Kings, I grilled my husband on the symptoms and treatment for smallpox and how Europeans transmitted the disease to Native Americans using contaminated blankets.

Back home, I researched the terrifying saga of smallpox in books, articles, and on the Internet. Because it is a virus that is easy to transmit during the early and unrecognizable stages of the disease, smallpox is difficult to contain and treat. Over thirty percent of people who get sick die, and survivors are often blinded or otherwise disfigured. Officially, smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1979, but the virus stocks in select research facilities were never destroyed...

“What if,” I asked myself, “my archaeologist heroine stumbled upon a plot to infect Western tourists with smallpox? What if there really was a stash of smallpox virus somewhere that terrorists could obtain and weaponize?” Not a new idea, I discovered, as I read Richard Preston’s The Demon in the Freezer. Although nonfiction, it read like a thriller, and scared me silly. Preston’s descriptions of smallpox laboratories and frozen virus stashes in the former Soviet Union and Iraq provided me with plenty of fodder for further research, including how to manage a modern smallpox epidemic.

wisseman_houseofthesphinxMany writers now say, “write want you want to know,” instead of “write what you know.” I say, use what you know as a jumping off point for new research, no matter how grisly. I’m an archaeologist, not a physician or medical historian, but being married to a doctor has taught me just enough about medicine to be dangerous, to want to learn more. And perhaps I was getting a little tired of killing my villains with priceless Greek vases and Roman statues—it was time for a change.

A little research can make you paranoid. As I happily Googled how to turn frozen smallpox virus into a stable, disease-transmitting powder, I wondered if anyone was tracking my Internet use. Would someone show up on my doorstep to investigate me as a terrorist, and would being a mystery writer be a good enough excuse to get me off the hook? That didn’t happen, but I did discover my own ghoulish tendencies in my fascination with the story behind of one of the deadliest diseases in human history.

The House of the Sphinx, Sarah Wisseman, Hilliard and Harris, December 2009, $17.95.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #113.

Killer Covers
J. Kingston Pierce

berry_manualofdetectionEleven Great Crime Novel Covers


When many people think of top-quality book jackets in the crime-fiction field, their minds turn immediately to the provocatively illustrated fronts of the mid-20th century. You know, the ones by artists such as Robert McGinnis, Norman Saunders, Ernest Chiriaka, and Victor Kalin. The ones that showed men with devilry blazing in their eyes and pistols in their paws, alleyways crawling with bent-nosed thugs, and curvaceous women with impossibly long legs. The sorts of covers that novelist Max Allan Collins once said represented “a wonderful golden age where utter sleaze meets genuine artistry.”

But crime novels didn’t shed all of their cleverness and captivation with the shift from painted covers to photographic ones in the late 1960s.

Typographical innovations, graphics-editing programs, and advances in printing technology give today’s designers tools that their forerunners of 50 years ago didn’t have. Those tools alone cannot turn mediocre concepts into brilliant ones, and they don’t alter the fundamental value of these jackets. As Peter Mendelsund, the associate art director for publisher Alfred A. Knopf, puts it: “Our job is still to take a book...and make it look attractive enough that you won’t be embarrassed to be seen enjoying it on a subway.” However, with the right mix of creative knack, eye for commercial appeal, and talent for pushing extraordinary ideas past dubious marketing departments, designers can still deliver eye-catching covers.

Glenn O’Neill, the deputy art director at Random House UK, isn’t pleased with the modern tendency of publishers to offer books that resemble one another, right down to their use of stock agency photos and shadowy, running figures. “When the exact same images duplicate on books,” he says, “it may well suggest the writing is also inter- changeable, [it’s] therefore a bad thing.”

cullin_slighttrickofthemindIt’s unlikely O’Neill would be accused of wielding a cookie cutter in his cover scheme for the hardback edition of Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection (2009). With its illustration of a human eye (evoking the classic Pinkerton National Detective Agency logo), surrounded by graphical elements (clocks, old-fashioned keys, fingerprints, etc.) that he says were “inspired by American noir but with a surreal twist,” Manual was among a flurry of recent books to have its artwork printed directly on the board binding, rather on a slick dust jacket. Such a “naked cover” gave Berry’s otherworldly story—about a reluctant detective pursuing his inaugural investigation with help from a highly flawed handbook—a distinctive character in both appearance and feel.

“The intention behind the design,” O’Neill explains, “particularly the scraperboard eye motif [commissioned from the illustrator Bill Sanderson], was to imply mystery but also a disquieting sense that ‘something is wrong here.’... It would be disingenuous, however, not to acknowledge that the jacket is meant to suggest the actual green detective manual referred to within the book; but it’s been developed into, I hope, a more desirable object, with gold and black foil to embellish.”

smith_child44Of course, a crime novel front doesn’t require such intricate details to be arresting. Consider Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind (2005), which finds a frail 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes living in post-World War II Sussex, keeping bees and struggling with his declining faculties, as he reminisces about the long-ago case of an oft-disappearing wife. That book’s face, created for Doubleday by Michael J. Windsor, featured rather delicate title type and below that, what looked like the crumbling edges of old paper. But it was the central image that caught one’s eye: the close-up of a bee’s posterior, hinting at Holmes’ apiarian pastime.

Similarly, it was the pronounced imagery on the cover of Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44 (2008)—conceived for Grand Central Publishing by Anne Twomey—that made it so striking. The sharp contrast between the red field at the top, the embossed and white-shadowed title, and the black-and-white composite image at the bottom of a man following silent railroad tracks combined in an elegant reflection of Smith’s bleak and startling thriller, set in the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century.

moore_thesherlockianAnd Will Staehle’s design for Twelve/Hatchette of The Sherlockian (2010), a debut work by Graham Moore, spoke boldly in the genre’s most iconic language. To introduce this yarn about a modern search for Arthur Conan Doyle’s missing diary and a parallel probe, by Holmes’ creator himself, into the deaths of three suffragettes in 1900, Staehle gave us an immediate reference to Holmes in the use of a pipe, upended like a question mark, with a splotch of blood for the dot. That spot was actually a cut-out in the jacket, exposing part of a scarlet profile of Holmes on the board behind.

Inventive employment of typefaces exert their own power and appeal. When she was looking for typographical solutions to the front of George Dawes Green’s Ravens (2009), Diane Luger, executive art director at Grand Central Publishing, says she “noticed that the ‘V’ letterform [in the book’s title] took on the shape of a raven in flight, and we moved forward from there. We looked at overlaying the title treatment over a photograph of a suburban street scene, to tell more of a story—but it lost its impact, proving that less is more.” The severe black-and-white result serves well Green’s chilling, twisted tale about drifters hoping to bilk a rural Georgia family of their lottery winnings.

grant_vanishingkatharinalindenRoberto de Vicq de Cumptich’s design for the hardcover jacket of Delacorte’s The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (2010), by UK-born Belgian author Helen Grant, could easily have slipped from clever to gimmicky, but it did not. The silhouette of a cat, filled with heavily vertical title type, nicely embodied this haunting story about an 11-year-old girl whose classmate vanishes from a Grimm’s fairy tale-themed parade float, provoking talk of the supernatural and witches assuming feline form.

One couldn’t help being drawn, as well, to the wrapper on Viking’s Faithful Place (2010), Irish author Tana French’s third novel. Designed by Jen Wang, with artwork by Viktor Koen, this front combined the likeness of an old, overgrown building wall with lettering broken and obscured by peeling paint. The results seemed almost too soothing to represent this mystery about forbidden love, sibling rivalries, and sins of the fathers being visited upon the next generation. Yet the neglect shown toward that wall echoed the familial fractures teased open in French’s narrative.

ross_mrpeanutWith so many crime novels demanding reader attention in bookstores, it’s not enough anymore for covers to simply be different; they have to look “wicked cool and awesome,” as Knopf art director Mendelsund jokes. He has a reputation for delivering such work. Mendelsund created the swirling fronts for the first two US releases of Stieg Larsson’s thrillers, as well as the less-subtle, silver-metalized jacket for the third book—all great departures from the European covers with their sexy women and dragon-shaped tattoos. He was also responsible for the eerie skull-in-dots jacket on Adam Ross’ Mr. Peanut (2010), the poignant story of a man obsessed with his wife’s demise.

However, Mendelsund’s predilection for novelty may have been demonstrated best in his work on Joe R. Lansdale’s Leather Maiden (2008). Lansdale’s tale focuses on a scandalized journalist who returns to his small Texas hometown and cracks a bad can of worms by digging into a cold-case murder. “That book has almost a horror kind of feel to it,” says Mendelsund, so he developed a black-and-white photo cover showing a woman’s upreaching hand and a small title card stapled to her palm. The only color is a bit of crimson around that staple. Although Mendelsund expected resistance to his concept from Knopf’s marketing minions, “the only feedback I got was that we should give the image a manicure,” which he accomplished with Photoshop.

yoshida_villain“Different” would also describe the wraparound on Japanese author Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain (2010). To attract readers to this gritty story about a young insurance saleswoman’s strangulation, Mendelsund’s colleague at Knopf, Chip Kidd, gave us the illustration of a handgun shaped from the major bones of the human body—an image that looks like something from a voodoo ceremony, something taboo. Again, there’s minimal color, and the understated headline type lets this “bone gun” take center stage.

abbott_thesongisyouCuriously, some of the most distinctive covers on shelves these days don’t look new at all. The seductive woman that Richie Fahey painted for the front of Megan Abbott’s 2007 Simon & Schuster release, The Song Is You, based on a true-life missing person case from Los Angeles in 1949, could have fit just as well on a Gold Medal paperback crime novel from the Eisenhower era.

Back then, though, the illustration would also have featured a gun. And you would have seen the woman’s legs. They would have been spectacular.

J. Kingston Pierce is the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 21 December 2011 11:12

berry_manualdetection

Eleven great crime novel covers.
Eyewitness: Kalinda Sharma on the Good Wife
Kevin Burton Smith

Good_wife_Kalinda-SharmaThe best damn private eye on television?


Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma, the enigmatic private investigator on The Good Wife. Courtesy CBS.

No, CBS’ The Good Wife is not a private-eye show. It’s really more of a legal thriller. Created by husband-and-wife writing team Michelle and Robert King, it stars Julianna Margulies (formerly of ER) as Alicia, the beleaguered wife of Peter Florrick, a prominent state’s attorney (played by Law and Order’s Chris Noth). When Peter’s busted and sent to the hoosegow amidst charges of corruption and a sex scandal, Alicia stands by her man.

Suddenly the sole breadwinner for her family, she throws herself back into the work force as a junior defense attorney at a high-priced Chicago firm. Alicia’s steely resolve to take the high road gives the show an unexpected moral underpinning. It’s all very noble and inspiring and sharply written, timely and provocative, placing demands on an adult audience that isn’t afraid to be occasionally shaken. Perfect bait for critics and awards.

The real hook, though, lies in its twisty, turny tumble of hidden agendas, backroom politics, lies, and conspiracies. The show’s a tsunami of secrets. Just when you think you have a character, a plot, a motive pinned down, the writers yank the rug out. Everyone, it seems, has something to hide, and nothing is ever black and white.

But nobody has more secrets—or prowls those murky gray areas better—than Kalinda Sharma, the firm’s savvy, leather wrapped private investigator. For my money, she’s not just the most interesting character on the show—she’s the best private eye on the tube these days. And in a long time.

Despite her thoroughly modern modus operandi (database diving, computer hacking, etc.) and the fact she’s female (never mind of East Indian descent, a true rarity on American television), Kalinda is actually, in many ways, a throwback to the genre’s roots.

As played by Archie Panjabi, Kalinda presents a tightly wound professionalism rarely seen in the PI genre these days. The leather she sports is not the shimmery come-hither stuff of adolescent fantasy—rather, she wears it like armor to keep the world at bay. Her antecedents aren’t amiable guys like Rockford or Magnum, cuddly losers like Monk, poor wet puppies like Terriers’ Hank or Charlie’s jiggly Angels—nope, her roots go back much further, back to a time when private eyes weren’t necessarily likable. Back to the very roots of the genre, to the pages of the hardboiled pulps of the 1920s, when hardbitten gumshoes like Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams boasted in the pages of Black Mask, “I ain’t afraid of nothing...providing there’s enough jack in it.”

That’s the sort of sangfroid Kalinda has in spades. Professionally she’s not just cold— she’s Dashiell Hammett-cold. Hard and tough as a pair of brass knuckles. Hell, the way she dispassionately works her cases, facing down her enemies without flinching and standing up to violence, she could be The Continental Op’s illegitimate daughter.

But she’s no one-note Susie, either.

In a video landscape that too often serves up even major characters as shallow stick figures, she’s a real feast. The more we’re told about Kalinda, it turns out, the less we actually know. While there’s no doubt about her professionalism, her ethics, allegiances and motives are steeped in ambivalence—and her personal life is also somewhere in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” area.

Is she a prickly ice queen who only lives for the job? A femme fatale more than willing to use sex as a weapon? Is she a lesbian? Bisexual? Straight? Asexual?

good_wife_dvdIt’s hard to tell.

In the first season, for which Panjabi nabbed a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, we learned that she used to work for Peter, but that she’s willing to sell him out to his political enemies. Or is she?

In the second season, however, Kalinda has really come into her own, even as the veneer of her personal life has oh-so-slowly started to slip. A merger brings fellow investigator Blake, an unwanted (and possibly unscrupulous) professional rival, into the firm, but it’s soon clear these two are not going to play nice. And matters are exacerbated when Blake begins threatening to reveal secrets from her past.

Suffice it to say Kalinda does not take it well. Given her buttoned-down aloofness and chilly pragmatism, her attack on Blake’s unprotected car with an aluminum baseball bat is deliciously unsettling. Even better, she gets in the face of a witness who inadvertently interrupts her rampage. “What the hell are you looking at?” she snaps. “Call the police!”

As the bewildered citizen scurries off, she continues to methodically destroy the car.

Now that’s cold.

Later in this season a former lover, brilliantly played by Lili Taylor, shows up, picking at old wounds, something to do with Kalinda not being “domestic” enough—whatever that means.

Whether the writers can keep the mysteries of Kalinda spinning just out of viewers’ reach indefinitely is hard to tell, but frankly, I hope so. I don’t want her to become just another soggy-edged weenie PI carting around more baggage than a bus station redcap. We’ve had enough of those in the last few years.

Kalinda’s absolutely riveting just as she is. Imagine! An old fashioned gumshoe, actually working cases on behalf of a client. No psychic baloney, no CSI voodoo, no mental disorders played for laughs, no angsty fashion-plate burned spies, no personal agendas on every single case—just a hardboiled jane who gets hired to investigate and actually works her cases.

How long has it been since we’ve seen that? I tell you, if they ever pull the plug on The Good Wife, they ought to spin Kalinda off into her own show.

Hell, I’d watch that.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #118.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 29 December 2011 12:12

Good_wife_Kalinda-SharmaThe best damn private eye on television?

What’s Happening With...Bill Pomidor
Brian Skupin

pomidor_bill“Calista Marley has been pregnant for 12 years,” says Bill Pomidor.

The last book by Pomidor, 1998’s Mind Over Murder, ended with Plato and Calista Marley expecting their first child.

It was a tantalizing end to the five-book series about two happily married doctors solving mysteries as they practiced medicine.

Dr. Calista Marley, a pathologist, and Dr. Plato Marley, a geriatrician, did their detecting in and around the Cleveland area, while they developed their relationship and their careers, and were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to go on their honeymoon. The murder methods, based on little-known medical facts, were diabolical.

“I had the inside edge on how to bump people off,” says Pomidor, who along with his wife Alice, is a doctor himself.

Pomidor graduated with an MD in 1986, taking, as he puts it, “the Doogie Howser route,” and worked in family practice in Cleveland for a brief time. But he wasn’t sure medicine was for him.

“The director of my practice, Dr. Jon Schlemmer, was a wise old mentor. He told me to do what was best for me, and that I couldn’t be a doctor and not be in it 1000%.” So Pomidor took a sabbatical to pursue a writing career, a move some might consider risky, but Pomidor was covered. “It helps to have a wife who’s a physician and has a steady job.”

Pomidor attempted several different things in this period, taking writing classes and workshops, contributing nonfiction to medical journals and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and writing literary fiction.

“I had this vision that I was an undiscovered talent, and that I would write great literature,” says Pomidor. “But it doesn’t take long for that vision to fade when you’re submitting to literary magazines and getting little form letters back.”

So when he tried writing a mystery short story and received a two-page, point-by-point rejection letter from Cathleen Jordan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, he was encouraged. “At that time I appreciated any sign that a human being had participated in my rejection. So that was like gold to me.”

Shortly thereafter Pomidor published his first short story, and then obtained a book deal for the Marley series, which began with Murder by Prescription in 1995. The series was going great guns until Pomidor’s publisher, Penguin, merged with Putnam Berkley in the late ’90s, a time when many mystery writers lost their book deals.

“It was a stunning setback,” admits Pomidor. He had been critically well-received and nominated for the Edgar and Shamus awards. “Writing a book, as opposed to a short story, takes a great deal of confidence. Going back to writing on spec was difficult.”

His agent asked him to write something scarier, a medical thriller, but that turned into a disappointment too.

Several publishers were interested in the resulting manuscript, and Pomidor’s agent arranged an auction. But surprisingly no one submitted a bid in the final round of the auction, and the book died on the vine.

pomidor_mindovermurderSince that time Pomidor has been extremely busy. He teaches humanities courses to medical students both in Florida, where he and his wife now live, and back in Ohio via the Internet.

“When you think about doctors, like me, who graduated very young, they’re 23 or 24 years old, going on the wards and trying to help people cope with terrible grief. But most of them have never witnessed or experienced any terrible diseases or tragedy. Reading literature allows them to vicariously experience emotions they couldn’t otherwise tap into, and makes them better doctors.”

In addition to teaching Pomidor has become a video game designer. He collaborated with fellow Battlezone enthusiasts whom he met online to create a sequel, Battlezone 2, and learned the basics of video game design along the way. Since then he’s developed ElderQuest 3D. He extended this experience into another venture as well: interactive 3D home design so that builders and buyers can view houses and refine the design before breaking ground.

Pomidor has now combined his three passions—writing, medicine, and video game design—into a new book which he’s hoping to complete early next year. It’s about a video game designer married to a doctor. Together they discover a vast conspiracy, the secrets to which have been hidden in an online virtual world.

“I haven’t decided whether to self-publish this in conjunction with a video game, or to try for traditional publication. It could work well either way.”

Does he have any plans to continue the Marley series?

“It would be fun to continue that series. The characters have become very real to me, and I still get asked about them. I do have about one-third of the sixth book written. Plato and Calista finally get to go on their honeymoon—but they go to Antigua in the middle of a hurricane....And that’s where Calista finally gets to deliver her baby.”

A BILL POMIDOR READING LIST

Cal and Plato Marley Mysteries
Murder by Prescription (1995)
The Anatomy of Murder (1996)
Skeletons in the Closet (1997)
Ten Little Medicine Men (1998)
Mind Over Murder (1998)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #117.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 29 December 2011 02:12

pomidor_bill“Calista Marley has been pregnant for 12 years,” says Bill Pomidor.

The last book by Pomidor, 1998’s Mind Over Murder, ended with Plato and Calista Marley expecting their first child.

It was a tantalizing end to the five-book series about two happily married doctors solving mysteries as they practiced medicine.

Dr. Calista Marley, a pathologist, and Dr. Plato Marley, a geriatrician, did their detecting in and around the Cleveland area, while they developed their relationship and their careers, and were repeatedly stymied in their attempts to go on their honeymoon. The murder methods, based on little-known medical facts, were diabolical.

“I had the inside edge on how to bump people off,” says Pomidor, who along with his wife Alice, is a doctor himself.

Pomidor graduated with an MD in 1986, taking, as he puts it, “the Doogie Howser route,” and worked in family practice in Cleveland for a brief time. But he wasn’t sure medicine was for him.

“The director of my practice, Dr. Jon Schlemmer, was a wise old mentor. He told me to do what was best for me, and that I couldn’t be a doctor and not be in it 1000%.” So Pomidor took a sabbatical to pursue a writing career, a move some might consider risky, but Pomidor was covered. “It helps to have a wife who’s a physician and has a steady job.”

Pomidor attempted several different things in this period, taking writing classes and workshops, contributing nonfiction to medical journals and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and writing literary fiction.

“I had this vision that I was an undiscovered talent, and that I would write great literature,” says Pomidor. “But it doesn’t take long for that vision to fade when you’re submitting to literary magazines and getting little form letters back.”

So when he tried writing a mystery short story and received a two-page, point-by-point rejection letter from Cathleen Jordan, editor of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, he was encouraged. “At that time I appreciated any sign that a human being had participated in my rejection. So that was like gold to me.”

Shortly thereafter Pomidor published his first short story, and then obtained a book deal for the Marley series, which began with Murder by Prescription in 1995. The series was going great guns until Pomidor’s publisher, Penguin, merged with Putnam Berkley in the late ’90s, a time when many mystery writers lost their book deals.

“It was a stunning setback,” admits Pomidor. He had been critically well-received and nominated for the Edgar and Shamus awards. “Writing a book, as opposed to a short story, takes a great deal of confidence. Going back to writing on spec was difficult.”

His agent asked him to write something scarier, a medical thriller, but that turned into a disappointment too.

Several publishers were interested in the resulting manuscript, and Pomidor’s agent arranged an auction. But surprisingly no one submitted a bid in the final round of the auction, and the book died on the vine.

pomidor_mindovermurderSince that time Pomidor has been extremely busy. He teaches humanities courses to medical students both in Florida, where he and his wife now live, and back in Ohio via the Internet.

“When you think about doctors, like me, who graduated very young, they’re 23 or 24 years old, going on the wards and trying to help people cope with terrible grief. But most of them have never witnessed or experienced any terrible diseases or tragedy. Reading literature allows them to vicariously experience emotions they couldn’t otherwise tap into, and makes them better doctors.”

In addition to teaching Pomidor has become a video game designer. He collaborated with fellow Battlezone enthusiasts whom he met online to create a sequel, Battlezone 2, and learned the basics of video game design along the way. Since then he’s developed ElderQuest 3D. He extended this experience into another venture as well: interactive 3D home design so that builders and buyers can view houses and refine the design before breaking ground.

Pomidor has now combined his three passions—writing, medicine, and video game design—into a new book which he’s hoping to complete early next year. It’s about a video game designer married to a doctor. Together they discover a vast conspiracy, the secrets to which have been hidden in an online virtual world.

“I haven’t decided whether to self-publish this in conjunction with a video game, or to try for traditional publication. It could work well either way.”

Does he have any plans to continue the Marley series?

“It would be fun to continue that series. The characters have become very real to me, and I still get asked about them. I do have about one-third of the sixth book written. Plato and Calista finally get to go on their honeymoon—but they go to Antigua in the middle of a hurricane....And that’s where Calista finally gets to deliver her baby.”

A BILL POMIDOR READING LIST

Cal and Plato Marley Mysteries
Murder by Prescription (1995)
The Anatomy of Murder (1996)
Skeletons in the Closet (1997)
Ten Little Medicine Men (1998)
Mind Over Murder (1998)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #117.

What’s Happening With...Donald Harstad
Brian Skupin

harstad_donaldSo far Donald Harstad has published five books about Carl Houseman, a good-natured, buffet-loving deputy sheriff in fictional Nation County, Iowa. Houseman’s talents for observation, deduction, and getting along with people have made him the senior investigator in the department, and the no-nonsense approach he and his colleague Hester Gorse—“I wanted to make it clear that no one was going to have fun with this woman, ever,” says Harstad of the name—bring to investigating both the mundane and the outré crimes they face made the series a popular one with readers.

But since A Long December came out in 2003, there haven’t been any more books.

“After Code 61 came out my editor at Doubleday told me he was leaving to start his own press, and he asked me to come with him. We had always had a good relationship, so I thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

Unfortunately the worst did happen. Rugged Land Press went out of business shortly after publishing A Long December. Consequently distribution and sales of that book were much smaller than for previous books, and now Harstad is up against the publishing numbers game.

“After Rugged Land went belly up, we talked to other publishers, but they all look at the sales of my last book, and decide they don’t want to take the risk.”

Harstad was born in Los Angeles, but his mother brought him to her hometown in Iowa when he was still a toddler, after his father died in World War II. After marrying his high school sweetheart, he moved back to L.A. and got a job working for a studio. But when they started a family, they moved back to Iowa again. Harstad found work as a police dispatcher, and later became an officer, and then deputy sheriff.

Harstad wrote the first Houseman book, Eleven Days, back in 1986, but it wasn’t published until 1998.

“When I wrote it I was still with the sheriff’s department. I got a call from the secretary telling me there had been a mistake with paperwork, and it turned out I had eleven days more vacation than I thought—and I had to take it starting the next day.”

Houseman, who had never written before, took the eleven days and wrote a book about a police investigation in Iowa that takes place over the course of—eleven days.

After finishing the book he sent it to a few publishers, but there was no interest. He gave up on publishing it until the late 1990s, when someone contacted him after his mother’s funeral.

“She told me that my mother had always told her I had written a good book, and since she worked in Hollywood, would I mind sending it to her.” This led him to an agent.

harstad_alongdecemberAt this time Harstad was still a deputy sheriff in Illinois. “Six weeks after I got an agent, I took a call from the dispatcher, and she said ‘Uh…’ Usually when they pause like that it’s bad news. Then she said ‘Uh…’ again, and I thought, 'Oh boy, this is really bad.' It turned out she was trying to figure out the 10-code for 'Your agent called and you have a two-book deal with Doubleday.'”

Harstad didn’t agonize about whether he should quit his job or not.

“I divided the amount I was getting from Doubleday by my current salary. Then I went to the sheriff and told him I didn’t work there anymore.”

Fans will be happy to hear that Harstad is still writing the Houseman series. In the latest one, Carl goes to London to investigate the disappearance of a girl from Iowa after her trip there.

“It becomes a political problem for the mayor, so he sends Carl to London. Carl doesn’t think he can investigate the case—he has no standing there—but he agrees to the free two week trip!” Harstad explains. "The London cops are saying, ‘Don’t bother us,’ and Carl is saying, ‘I don’t want to bother you,’ but then it works out.

“My wife and I were in London during a visit by President Bush, and there were 14,000 cops in London per shift, and none of them were doing anything unrelated to the presidential visit. So in the book Carl gets traction because no other cops have time to work the case.”

Harstad is also writing a standalone novel. And a French company has just purchased the rights to one of the unpublished Houseman books, and is inquiring about further books.

“I’m hoping they publish it and then sell the English-language rights back to a US publisher.” Either way, Harstad isn’t worried.

“My whole life, I’ve never known what I’d be doing six weeks in the future.”

A DONALD HARSTAD READING LIST

The Carl Houseman Novels
Eleven Days, 1998
The Known Dead, 1999
The Big Thaw, 2000
Code 61, 2002
A Long December, 2003

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #106.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 29 December 2011 03:12

harstad_donaldSo far Donald Harstad has published five books about Carl Houseman, a good-natured, buffet-loving deputy sheriff in fictional Nation County, Iowa. Houseman’s talents for observation, deduction, and getting along with people have made him the senior investigator in the department, and the no-nonsense approach he and his colleague Hester Gorse—“I wanted to make it clear that no one was going to have fun with this woman, ever,” says Harstad of the name—bring to investigating both the mundane and the outré crimes they face made the series a popular one with readers.

But since A Long December came out in 2003, there haven’t been any more books.

“After Code 61 came out my editor at Doubleday told me he was leaving to start his own press, and he asked me to come with him. We had always had a good relationship, so I thought, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’”

Unfortunately the worst did happen. Rugged Land Press went out of business shortly after publishing A Long December. Consequently distribution and sales of that book were much smaller than for previous books, and now Harstad is up against the publishing numbers game.

“After Rugged Land went belly up, we talked to other publishers, but they all look at the sales of my last book, and decide they don’t want to take the risk.”

Harstad was born in Los Angeles, but his mother brought him to her hometown in Iowa when he was still a toddler, after his father died in World War II. After marrying his high school sweetheart, he moved back to L.A. and got a job working for a studio. But when they started a family, they moved back to Iowa again. Harstad found work as a police dispatcher, and later became an officer, and then deputy sheriff.

Harstad wrote the first Houseman book, Eleven Days, back in 1986, but it wasn’t published until 1998.

“When I wrote it I was still with the sheriff’s department. I got a call from the secretary telling me there had been a mistake with paperwork, and it turned out I had eleven days more vacation than I thought—and I had to take it starting the next day.”

Houseman, who had never written before, took the eleven days and wrote a book about a police investigation in Iowa that takes place over the course of—eleven days.

After finishing the book he sent it to a few publishers, but there was no interest. He gave up on publishing it until the late 1990s, when someone contacted him after his mother’s funeral.

“She told me that my mother had always told her I had written a good book, and since she worked in Hollywood, would I mind sending it to her.” This led him to an agent.

harstad_alongdecemberAt this time Harstad was still a deputy sheriff in Illinois. “Six weeks after I got an agent, I took a call from the dispatcher, and she said ‘Uh…’ Usually when they pause like that it’s bad news. Then she said ‘Uh…’ again, and I thought, 'Oh boy, this is really bad.' It turned out she was trying to figure out the 10-code for 'Your agent called and you have a two-book deal with Doubleday.'”

Harstad didn’t agonize about whether he should quit his job or not.

“I divided the amount I was getting from Doubleday by my current salary. Then I went to the sheriff and told him I didn’t work there anymore.”

Fans will be happy to hear that Harstad is still writing the Houseman series. In the latest one, Carl goes to London to investigate the disappearance of a girl from Iowa after her trip there.

“It becomes a political problem for the mayor, so he sends Carl to London. Carl doesn’t think he can investigate the case—he has no standing there—but he agrees to the free two week trip!” Harstad explains. "The London cops are saying, ‘Don’t bother us,’ and Carl is saying, ‘I don’t want to bother you,’ but then it works out.

“My wife and I were in London during a visit by President Bush, and there were 14,000 cops in London per shift, and none of them were doing anything unrelated to the presidential visit. So in the book Carl gets traction because no other cops have time to work the case.”

Harstad is also writing a standalone novel. And a French company has just purchased the rights to one of the unpublished Houseman books, and is inquiring about further books.

“I’m hoping they publish it and then sell the English-language rights back to a US publisher.” Either way, Harstad isn’t worried.

“My whole life, I’ve never known what I’d be doing six weeks in the future.”

A DONALD HARSTAD READING LIST

The Carl Houseman Novels
Eleven Days, 1998
The Known Dead, 1999
The Big Thaw, 2000
Code 61, 2002
A Long December, 2003

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #106.

What’s Happening With...John R. Maxim
Brian Skupin

maxim_johnA New Prophecy


Photo: Eleanor Bell

“I’m hoping to get death threats.”

That’s what John Maxim has to say about the manuscript he recently completed. It’s been five years since his last book, The Bannerman Solution, came out, and he says he’s been writing this one ever since.

“It was a hard book to write,” he says.

While this is not another book in the Bannerman series about a former government agent, fans will be happy to hear that The Aisha Prophecy does feature a familiar face from the Bannerman series. Elizabeth Stride, the redheaded assassin who was tortured by Saudis and later recruited by the Mossad, originated in the standalone novel Haven but made her last appearance in Bannerman’s Ghosts.

Maxim, born in Manhattan, was an ad agency executive in the late 1970s when he started writing, although the genesis goes further back.

“For my seventh birthday, I received my first hardcover book. Ever since then I pictured myself with a pipe and a golden retriever at my feet while I wrote.” When Maxim divorced, he took a year off work to spend time with his children, and started to write what would become his first novel, Platforms.

“I picked out books similar to mine and sent a query letter to five editors.” He received answers from all five, and offers from four. How did he decide which one to take?

“I accepted the first! I didn’t know there were going to be any more.”

Maxim wrote more standalone thrillers, then was asked by an editor to write a book about a secondary character, Lesko, from one of them. “Bannerman started out as a small character in that book, but his role just grew, and the book ended up being The Bannerman Solution.”

Maxim has relationships with experts who can help him maintain authenticity. He has two friends who used to be in the CIA who have provided a lot of detail, and when traveling in Moscow, Maxim met a police captain.

“I was at a hotel bar, when these Japanese businessmen tried to smuggle some hookers in by dressing them in their overcoats and homburgs. The police were called in and one of them tried to grab a hooker, but he missed her and fell down.

maxim_theaishaprophecy“I laughed, and he got up and poked me in the chest and yelled at me in Russian. The other officers were calling his name and trying to get him to stop wasting time.” Maxim slapped the policeman’s hand away, called him by the name the other cops had used and told him to leave him alone. “But he wouldn’t stop, so I gave him a shove, and he fell down again.”

At the police station, Maxim found out that the Russian word he’d heard the other cops use was not the officer’s name, but “schmuck.” The police captain who released Maxim after a short lecture became a friend and an important source of information. He even appeared in one of the books under his real name: Alexei Levin.

Lately, Maxim has been corresponding with a senior member of the Social Services wing of Hamas in order to get details about Islam for The Aisha Prophecy.

In the new book, which is now with his agent, a prophecy comes to light which heralds the coming of a feminist heroine who will free Muslim women. When Maxim first came across the prophecy, which some claim is real, he was excited at how closely the people mentioned in it mirror two of his characters.

“The prophecy talks about the coming of the ‘lady of the camel,’ in white, who is from the East but whose banner will unfurl from the West. In my books Aisha, who wears white, was born in the Middle East but has been brought to the United States for safety. Aisha in history was one of Mohammed’s warrior wives. And the prophecy talks about a ‘flame-haired angel’ to guide her who sounds a lot like Elizabeth Stride.”

In the book, Islamic authorities and others are trying to determine if the prophecy is true, and if so, to whom it refers, and Stride and others must protect Aisha against a host of global enemies. Because the prophecy is feminist in nature, it will be anathema to fundamental Muslims, which is why Maxim expects the death threats.

“Read the real prophecy,” he urges. “You can Google 'Aisha Prophecy' and see that it’s already stirring up a lot of emotion.” He expects this book to be his most controversial and successful to date. “I think it’s going to turn the world on its ear.”

A JOHN R. MAXIM READING LIST

Platforms (1980)
Abel Baker Charley (1983)
Time out of Mind (1986)
The Shadow Box (1996)
Haven (1997)
Mosaic (1999)
Whistler’s Angel (2000)
The Aisha Prophecy (2009)

The Bannerman Series
The Bannerman Solution (1989)
The Bannerman Effect (1990)
Bannerman’s Law (1991)
Bannerman’s Promise (originally A Matter of Honor) (1993)
Bannerman’s Ghosts (2003)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #105.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 29 December 2011 03:12

A New Prophecy

What’s Happening With...Jeanne M. Dams
Brian Skupin

dams_jeanneA Dark and Stormy Beginning


Photo: Eleanor Bell

In 1994, Jeanne Dams was at the Dark and Stormy Nights writers’ conference and waiting for the critique of her submitted chapter. She was dreading the result, since editor Michael Seidman was not known for his fondness for cozy mysteries. But his reaction was, “Why hasn’t this been published yet?”

That book became her Agatha award-winning novel The Body in the Transept, and led to her nine-book Dorothy Martin series, about a widowed American living in England, and to a six-book series featuring Hilda Johansson, a Swedish housemaid in early 20th century Indiana who works for the wealthy Studebaker family.

Dams herself has lived in Indiana her whole life, with the exception of a three-year period in California. She didn’t enjoy it, and moved back to Indiana for good.

Things took a turn for the better when Dams met her eventual husband, Ed. “I had known him slightly, through friends of friends, and was not interested. But I was at a party with my then-boyfriend, who I was ticked at, so I decided to do my own thing. This being a 60’s-type party of course my boyfriend and I had gone to the party separately anyway.” Dams and her future husband went for a drive and then spent the whole night talking, were engaged by the end of the night, and were married one year later.

Her boyfriend from the night of the party came to the wedding, gave her “a soulful look,” and said, “I think I made a mistake.” Dams recalls, “That was very satisfying.”

Her writing career did not get off to the same swift and satisfying start. Dams had started working life as a primary school teacher, and later was a junior administrator at a university. She had often thought about writing, but felt she didn’t have enough time, so she quit work to write full time. “It was eight years from the time I started writing fiction until I was published.”

dams_indigochristmasDams is well-known in the mystery community for her love of hats. At her first convention, the 1992 Bouchercon, she won the hat contest, wearing “a wide-brimmed, quite elegant, black and white hat. I call it my Ascot hat, and I still wear it.” Dams bemoans the lack of opportunities to wear hats to social events these days, but always wears one to church on Sunday, and owns about 50 in all.

Dams wrote 14 books over 10 years to good reviews and a loyal readership but now hasn’t had a book out since 2005’s Crimson Snow. What happened?

“In 2002, several very unpleasant things happened in the same week,” reports Dams. “My husband went in for a routine test that became a triple bypass. At the same time, we had an epic winter storm, and I had no electricity at the house for 4 days. It was 47 degrees inside the house. Then our kitten died, and I had to tell Ed at the hospital. And then my agent called, and told me that Walker would no longer be publishing mysteries.”

Although Michael Seidman brought the Dorothy Martin series with him when he moved to TOR, and her agent placed the Hilda Johansson series at Perseverance Press, various financial constraints made it impossible for Dams to continue as a full-time writer. So she has spent the last few years working at other things, including an editorial service for other writers.

But now there is great news for readers. Dams has completed the next Hilda Johansson novel, Indigo Christmas, and Perseverance will publish it this fall. She’s also working on a new Dorothy Martin book—and that’s not all.

“I’ve written another book with two co-authors. It’s a thriller, with a delightfully evil villain, and it will be out in the spring of 2009. I can’t say anything else about it now.”

For further news and updates, fans can refer to Dams’ newly re-designed website.

A JEANNE M. DAMS READING LIST

The Dorothy Martin Series
The Body in the Transept (1995)
Trouble in the Town Hall (1996)
Holy Terror in the Hebrides (1997)
Malice in Miniature (1998)
The Victim in Victoria Station (1999)
Killing Cassidy (2000)
To Perish in Penzance (2001)
Sins Out of School (2003)
Winter of Discontent (2004)
A Dark and Stormy Night (2011)

The Hilda Johansson Series
Death in Lacquer Red (1999)
Red, White, and Blue Murder (2000)
Green Grow the Victims (2001)
Silence Is Golden (2002)
Crimson Snow (2005)
Indigo Christmas (2008)
Murder in Burnt Orange (2011)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #104.

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 29 December 2011 05:12

A Dark and Stormy Beginning

What’s Happening With...Sheri Tepper
Brian Skupin

tepper_sheri“I had always said that when I retired I was going to write, and when my 50th birthday was coming around I said to myself, ‘If you’re ever going to do this, now is the time.’”

Sheri S. Tepper had her first mystery novel published when she was 60 years old. But she’d had her first science fiction novel published well before that—when she was 54.

In 1929 Tepper was born Shirley Stuart, but when she turned 18 years old she had her first name legally changed to Sheri. “There were too many Shirleys. There were four other Shirleys, and even two other Shirley Stuarts, in my graduating class. Remember, I was born at a time when Shirley Temple was very popular.”

“I grew up on a ranch outside Denver, and there were no children my age to play with, and nothing else to do. I wrote all the time, and my father went to the mobile library every week and brought me books.”

After school, Tepper got married, had two children, divorced, and then worked a succession of what she calls “boring jobs.” “My father had taught me to draw in perspective, and so I worked for a while drawing kitchens for a plumbing company. That was boring—drawing the same things over and over.” After that she went into sales. “Someone thought it would be a good idea to go around to banks and churches and so on, and to sell them group tickets to movies at a discount. It wasn’t a good idea.”

After a while Tepper landed a job with Planned Parenthood, and stayed with them for 24 years. Along the way she acquired her last name when she married Eugene Tepper.

She had never forgotten about writing. “I had always said that when I retired I was going to write, and when my 50th birthday was coming around I said to myself, ‘If you’re ever going to do this, now is the time.’”

So Tepper wrote a science fiction manuscript and sent it straight to Ace Books in New York, who asked for a shorter work, which they published.

tepper_herestonewlydeadsFor a time Tepper would write two science fiction novels at once: a longer more complex work, and a shorter simpler work. Concerns about the environment and out-of-control population growth have been a recurring theme in Tepper’s science fiction, especially in the longer works. The Gate to Women’s Country, for example, is about a catastrophically damaged environment.

Tepper proved to be prolific, putting out 15 books in six years under her real name of Sheri S. Tepper. Then in 1988, she decided to write her first mystery after her publisher told her they no longer wanted to publish the shorter novels. “I was used to using those as a break.”

Tepper went to the bookstore to see what the mystery shelves looked like. “There were a lot of Cs—because of Agatha Christie—and the T section was way down at the bottom. But I noticed there were hardly any writers whose name started with O, and that was right in the middle at eye level.” So she picked the pen name A.J. Orde, and wrote the first Jason Lynx mystery, set in Denver. Lynx was an antiques dealer dating a cop named Grace Willis.

The next year she started a second series, this time using the pseudonym B.J. Oliphant and starring Shirley McClintock, a tall, active rancher from Santa Fe.

“My husband once mentioned that he was married to the writer of the McClintock books, and a woman asked him if I was six feet tall like Shirley. He said, ‘She’s not, but she thinks she is!’”

“Making Shirley tall and such a good rider was a little bit of wish fulfillment for me. I had always wanted to ride, but I’ve never been able to.” Tepper has suffered from arthritis, had a knee replaced in 1995, and had also been plagued by debilitating back pain for years, which was cured by new surgical techniques just a few months ago. “It feels wonderful!” she says.

Tepper still writes science fiction (her latest is last year’s The Margarets) but both of her mystery series ended in 1997 although she has two half-finished manuscripts.

Her recent health troubles may have a silver lining for the author’s fans, though. “I’ve read about 300 mysteries in the past year. The genre has changed so much in the last 20 years,” Tepper says. “It might be time to try another mystery.”

A SHERI TEPPER READING LIST

The Jason Lynx Novels by A.J. Orde
A Little Neighborhood Murder (1989)
Death and the Dogwalker (1990)
Death for Old Times’ Sake (1992)
Dead on Sunday (1993)
A Long Time Dead (1994)
A Death of Innocents (1997)

The Shirley McClintock Novels by B.J. Oliphant
Dead in the Scrub (1990)
The Unexpected Corpse (1990)
Deservedly Dead (1992)
Death and the Delinquent (1993)
Death Served Up Cold (1994)
A Ceremonial Death (1996)
Here’s to the Newly Deads (1997)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #103.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 30 December 2011 02:12

“I had always said that when I retired I was going to write, and when my 50th birthday was coming around I said to myself, ‘If you’re ever going to do this, now is the time.’”

What’s Happening With...Jerome Doolittle
Brian Skupin

doolittle_jeromeWhen Jerome Doolittle was conceiving the character of Tom Bethany, he knew he wanted a tough loner. But he wanted to avoid a problem he’d seen in Raymond Chandler’s work.


“I never understood Chandler’s appeal. Any natural reading of Chandler shows that Marlowe is a psychopath.” Doolittle says that many writers, including Robert B. Parker, use a common tactic to combat this problem. “To pretend the guy is not a psychopath, you give him a buddy who is worse than he is.”

Instead, Doolittle drew inspiration from his favorite mystery writer, John D. MacDonald. “One way MacDonald kept Travis McGee positioned where he wanted him was by showing him liking women. Of course he was with a different woman in every book, but MacDonald used a different strategy in every book to get rid of the women without making McGee look like an SOB.”

So to make his character sympathetic, Doolittle arranged a strong romantic relationship between Bethany and ACLU lawyer Hope Edwards, one that commits them to each other without tying Bethany down.

Doolittle was born in northwestern Connecticut in 1933, and through his headmaster father gained entrance to a succession of prestigious private schools, most of which, Doolittle says, “had their chance to adjust to me and failed.” He went on to be an oil rig worker, an army private, a newspaperman, the US embassy spokesman in Casablanca and Laos, a writer for Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post, a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign, and Chief of Public Affairs for the FAA.

Doolittle’s natural outrage at injustice was developed while he was embassy spokesman during the bombing of Laos in the 1960s. Doolittle repeatedly told the world press that the bombing was not happening—until he found out it was. He resigned shortly thereafter.

During his later work in the Carter White House while Doolittle was coming in early every day to work on a novel, one of his colleagues was asked by a literary agent to write a book. The colleague told the agent, “There’s a guy sitting next to me, and he’s already writing a book.” This resulted in Doolittle’s first novel, The Bombing Officer, which tells the story of the Laos bombings.

After Doolittle left politics, he moved to Connecticut and took on various writing projects. He later spent five years at Harvard, teaching writing and soaking up the atmosphere for the Tom Bethany novels.

doolittle_killstoryThere were six novels in the series, starting with Body Scissors, and each put Bethany into a troubleshooting role, usually against a political or newspaper background. Bethany is a wisecracker, and Doolittle turns his experience to good advantage by dropping him into the utterly ludicrous yet completely believable situations that can occur only in those milieus. The books received outstanding reviews but the publisher, Pocket Books, was acquired just before the sixth book came out, and in the ensuing turmoil Doolittle’s contract was not renewed.

Today Doolittle is back in Connecticut and writing almost daily on his political blog, Bad Attitudes, where the opinions born of his newspaper and political career are on full display. The site also has the full text of an unpublished novel, helpful household hints that he’s collected over the years, and sample chapters from his books and those of his friend K.C. Constantine.

Doolittle built the site himself. “After Carter, I was at loose ends, and I decided it would be fun to learn typography. Later I heard about the Net, so I taught myself enough HTML and CSS so I could make things work the way I wanted. My brain was in sharp decline at that point, and I have never done anything harder.”

Is Tom Bethany down for the count? Doolittle says maybe not—“I like the character, and I think it’s possible to continue the series”—but if he writes about him again, he’s not sure if he should age Bethany appropriately, or just pluck him from the mid ’90s and drop him into today.

Meanwhile Doolittle is still writing. His current project is a political novel about a man working for a Karl Rove-type figure. He has also been working on a big nonfiction book tentatively called Snakes in America, which is an outlet for his lifelong fascination with the creatures. (Fans will remember that one of the characters in the Bethany books kept a 10-foot python named Julius Squeezer.)

Doolittle says he doesn’t consider himself retired. “You know what keeps me going? I want to get up in the morning to see what happens next.”

A JEROME DOOLITTLE READING LIST

The Tom Bethany Series
Body Scissors (1990)
Strangle Hold (1991)
Bear Hug (1992)
Head Lock (1993)
Half Nelson (1994)
Kill Story (1995)

Standalone
The Bombing Officer (1982)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #102.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 30 December 2011 03:12

doolittle_jeromeJerome Doolittle conceived his hero Tom Bethany as a tough loner—but he's no Marlowe. He's better.

What’s Happening With...Abigail Padgett
Brian Skupin

padgett_abigailGood news for Abigail Padgett fans! After several years without a new book, the author of the Bo Bradley and the Blue McCarron series published a new standalone, Bone Blind in 2011.

Mystery Scene spoke early on with the author about it in MS #101, Fall 2007.

Padgett broke ground in the 1990s with her series about Bo Bradley, a child abuse investigator who also happened to be bipolar. Padgett was inspired to write the series based on two key events. First, a woman she admired and who had worked for years to advance the cause of reproductive health committed suicide, and in her suicide note she asked that her mental illness not be disclosed, since she feared it would be taken up by opponents of her cause to discredit her good works.

“She was scared because it would have ruined everything she’d done.”

The other event started with The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. “I loved that book. He’s a great writer. But there is one scene in which Hannibal Lecter is describing one of his prison mates, and he says you can tell he’s schizophrenic because of ‘the smell of the goat’. That is such a terrible, stigmatizing thing to say, and it is just wrong!”

At this point in her life Padgett had some experience with mental illness. A family member had been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and Padgett spent time dealing with that, and became active in support organizations. In addition she worked for three years as a child abuse investigator, and came in contact with people with mental illness as a result. She decided she needed to do something.

“So I wrote a letter to Thomas Harris. I told him I loved the book, but that what Lecter said wasn’t true, and he should be more careful about what he writes. I said, ‘Do you know what I’m going to do, Mr. Harris? I’m going to write a story, and the person with mental illness is going to be the main character and the hero!’”

Harris responded graciously to the letter. “He wrote me a lovely, elegant letter back, and apologized and said he wouldn’t do it again. He was a gentleman. And he said I should go ahead and write that story.”

padgett_boneblindAt this point Padgett got crafty. “I had written the first Bo Bradley manuscript, and I decided to send it to Thomas Harris’ publisher. So I sent it to St. Martin’s Press, and I dropped his name—I told them that Harris had encouraged me to write the book.”

The strategy worked. Padgett was referred to long-time editor Ruth Cavin, and although St. Martin’s didn’t end up publishing the book, it was picked up by Time Warner who published it through the Mysterious Press. Four more titles in the series followed.

After that, Padgett’s editor asked her for a new series about a gay character.

“I think as soon as the words were out of her mouth, that trend was over. And I’m not particularly interested in advocating for gay and lesbian rights. I’m more interested in advocating for people who can’t stand up for themselves, like children and the mentally ill.” But Padgett wrote two books about Blue McCarron, a social psychologist who lives in the middle of the California desert. The books received terrific reviews, as had the Bradley series, but only two were published. After that Padgett didn’t write for a few years.

But now she’s back. She’s finishing a standalone novel, about two main characters separately investigating the same cold case. One is a police detective about to retire who wants to solve the case before he goes, and the other is a horror writer who’s writing a novel about it. She’s also preparing a proposal for a new three book mystery series, about an American professor who has to work and live in France in order to earn tenure. “She doesn’t speak French, and she doesn’t want to learn. But she has to. And then she finds a dead body in her backyard.” Each of the three books will take place in a different part of France.

Padgett fans will have to wait a little while longer before they can read them. The books aren’t ready yet, and she hasn’t even told her agent about them. “I have a few months worth of revising left to do before everything is just right. Then I’m going to submit them, and we’ll see what happens.”

And the story may not be over for Bo Bradley either. Padgett has a soft spot in her heart for that character. “I still have outlines for the next three books. The first of those is set in Boston and Cape Cod, two areas that I spend a lot of time in, and I would love to see it published.”

AN ABIGAIL PADGETT READING LIST

The Bo Bradley Series
Child of Silence (1993)
Strawgirl (1994)
Turtle Baby (1995)
Moonbird Boy (1996)
The Dollmaker’s Daughters (1997)

The Blue McCarron Series
Blue (1998)
The Last Blue Plate Special (2001)

Standalone
Bone Blind (2011)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #101.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 30 December 2011 03:12

padgett_abigailGood news for Abigail Padgett fans! A new standalone book, Bone Blind, arrived in 2011.

What’s Happening With...Leonard Tourney
Brian Skupin

tourney_leonard“My initial goal was to have a good time, and to enjoy the experience. Writing has always been fun for me. Writing is in fact a form of entertainment for me—although I would stop short of calling it self-indulgent.”


Back in the mid 1980’s Leonard Tourney decided to write a mystery.

“I had already written an academic book, a critical study of the essays of Joseph Hall, and I thought it would be fun to write a novel.”

So he wrote a historical mystery set in the 17th century.

“I wanted to take the background of Shakespeare’s time, and write a novel that would have the same grit and impact as a contemporary book. I wasn’t interested in doing an antique piece or costume drama. And I really wanted to get the language right.”

Tourney wrote The Player’s Boy Is Dead, featuring Mathew Stock, a clothier and town constable in 17th century England, and asked a colleague at the University of Tulsa how he could get an agent. He received a list of five literary agencies, and wrote to each.

The agency that replied, McIntosh and Otis, had previously represented John Steinbeck, Walker Percy, and Erskine Caldwell, and successfully sold Tourney’s book to legendary mystery editor Joan Kahn at Harper and Row.

“Looking back on it now I say, ‘Boy, that was easy,’ but I didn’t realize how lucky I was then. I didn’t know Joan Kahn from Eve.” Tourney says. “And it turned out that the person who gave me the list of agents didn’t really have specific contacts in publishing—he had just gone to the library and looked up the names and addresses of five agencies.”

Kahn asked for a change to the ending before publication. “In the original version Mathew discovered the killer but was unable to apprehend him because of his social position. Joan told me it would be hard to build a series on failure, so I rewrote it.”

Kahn must have been right, because the book was a success and there were seven more in the series. Kahn herself moved from publisher to publisher, but always brought Tourney and his books with her. He ended up at St. Martin’s Press, but was dropped by that publisher in the late '90s.

tourney_timesfool“That was a great disappointment to me,” says Tourney. “But I looked at it philosophically, and continued to write.”

The next book in the series was submitted to Tor, who bought it on the provision that it be rewritten with William Shakespeare as the main character.

“I’m always happy to write,” says Tourney, and he revised the book. Tor published it as Time’s Fool in 2004 in a one book deal. Tourney has just finished the first draft of The Conjuror’s Daughter, again starring Shakespeare, and when he has the final draft done his agents will be sending it to Tor.

Tourney was born and raised in Long Beach California, and after graduate school at the University of Santa Barbara he became a professor at the University of Tulsa. After 15 years there he returned to Santa Barbara for 21 years. In 1996 he married Judith Olauson, and they have settled in Utah, where Tourney works at Brigham Young University.

Through this period Tourney has had to write whenever he could fit in time. “I know how people like to hear about writers who work from eight until noon and then take long walks in the country, but that’s never been my experience. It’s catch-as-catch-can.”

Luckily Tourney enjoys the process. “My initial goal was to have a good time, and to enjoy the experience. Writing has always been fun for me. Writing is in fact a form of entertainment for me—although I would stop short of calling it self-indulgent.”

Will there be more books in the Matthew Stock series someday? “Well, your readers should know that there is a Matthew Stock mystery that was never published. It was called Mortal Pilgrim, and Joan Kahn didn’t like it.” In addition to the possibility of that book finding a home, Tourney is interested in continuing the Mathew Stock series. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you see more books. There are a million stories from that time that would engage a contemporary reader, because there are always contemporary parallels.

A Leonard Tourney Reading List

The Matthew Stock Series
The Player's Boy Is Dead (1980)
Low Treason (1982)
Familiar Spirits (1984)
The Bartholomew Fair Murders (1986)
Old Saxon Blood (1988)
Knaves Templar (1991)
Witness of Bones (1992)
Frobisher's Savage (1994)

The William Shakespeare Series
Time’s Fool (2004)

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.

Teri Duerr
Friday, 30 December 2011 04:12

“My initial goal was to have a good time, and to enjoy the experience. Writing has always been fun for me. Writing is in fact a form of entertainment for me—although I would stop short of calling it self-indulgent.”

Randy Wayne White's Seal Swim
Oline Cogdill

White_RandyWayneFor the past four years, Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford novels, has started the new year off swimming with the SEALS.

Navy SEALS, that is.

The swim across Tampa Bay is a fundraiser to raise money for those brave men and women who have fought for this country. Last year, with only three weeks notice, more than 100 people gathered at Gandy Beach to swim and offer support, raising more than $30,000 for a severely injured active duty Navy SEAL.

The swim has been formally named the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim and is supported by the Navy SEAL Foundation. The 2012 Tampa Bay Frogman Swim's 5k Open Water Swim and Fundraiser will be Jan. 8. More information is at the Web site.

The swim is open to anyone who can make the swim.

Randy has been making the swim for the past three years but this year there is a wrinkle in his plans.

Randy tore his rotator cuff and can't do the actual swim. But he will be there as a safety volunteer.

In an email, he mentioned that he was not happy to have to forgo the swim but wants to support the fund-raiser.

"Warm this year so an easy swim, damn. I'll bring box of books to sign for those who donate!" he wrote.

I was on the beach when Randy made his first swim with the SEALS. I was there to interview him for a cover story for Mystery Scene. My husband and I waited on the beach on Tampa Bay on what was one of the coldest mornings as the swimmers came ashore. (The photo was taken by my husband, Bill Hirschman). (The interview ran in the Winter 2010 Issue, No. 113.)

It was an amazing sight and no could help but be moved by watching these hearty men and women come ashore, freezing, but happy and knowing they had just raised money for a SEAL who had been disabled fighting for our country.

In the Mystery Scene profile, Randy discussed his volunteer work and I hope the story gave readers a different view of this author. His latest book Chasing Midnight, his 19th novel about Doc Ford, a marine biologist and former government op who lives on Florida’s Sanibel Island, will be published in March.

Happy New Year to all our readers. The entire Mystery Scene staff is grateful to each of our readers;

And best of luck to those who are making the swim and those, such as Randy Wayne White, who are there as safety volunteers.

Super User 2
Saturday, 31 December 2011 06:12

White_RandyWayneFor the past four years, Randy Wayne White, author of the Doc Ford novels, has started the new year off swimming with the SEALS.

Navy SEALS, that is.

The swim across Tampa Bay is a fundraiser to raise money for those brave men and women who have fought for this country. Last year, with only three weeks notice, more than 100 people gathered at Gandy Beach to swim and offer support, raising more than $30,000 for a severely injured active duty Navy SEAL.

The swim has been formally named the Tampa Bay Frogman Swim and is supported by the Navy SEAL Foundation. The 2012 Tampa Bay Frogman Swim's 5k Open Water Swim and Fundraiser will be Jan. 8. More information is at the Web site.

The swim is open to anyone who can make the swim.

Randy has been making the swim for the past three years but this year there is a wrinkle in his plans.

Randy tore his rotator cuff and can't do the actual swim. But he will be there as a safety volunteer.

In an email, he mentioned that he was not happy to have to forgo the swim but wants to support the fund-raiser.

"Warm this year so an easy swim, damn. I'll bring box of books to sign for those who donate!" he wrote.

I was on the beach when Randy made his first swim with the SEALS. I was there to interview him for a cover story for Mystery Scene. My husband and I waited on the beach on Tampa Bay on what was one of the coldest mornings as the swimmers came ashore. (The photo was taken by my husband, Bill Hirschman). (The interview ran in the Winter 2010 Issue, No. 113.)

It was an amazing sight and no could help but be moved by watching these hearty men and women come ashore, freezing, but happy and knowing they had just raised money for a SEAL who had been disabled fighting for our country.

In the Mystery Scene profile, Randy discussed his volunteer work and I hope the story gave readers a different view of this author. His latest book Chasing Midnight, his 19th novel about Doc Ford, a marine biologist and former government op who lives on Florida’s Sanibel Island, will be published in March.

Happy New Year to all our readers. The entire Mystery Scene staff is grateful to each of our readers;

And best of luck to those who are making the swim and those, such as Randy Wayne White, who are there as safety volunteers.

James M. Cain's 'New' Work
Oline Cogdill

James_M._Cain091911Judging from the start I have on mysteries that will be published this year, 2012 is shaping up to be a very good year indeed.

One of the hot new novels scheduled to be published this year will be from one of the genre's masters -- James M. Cain, the late author of such noir classics as The Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Hard Case Crime plans to publish during October, 2012, Cain's novel The Cocktail Waitress, the last book he wrote before his death in 1977, but which was never published.

The Cocktail Waitress is the story of Joan Medford, a beautiful young widow who begins to work in a bar following the death of her husband under "suspicious circumstances." There she meets a handsome young schemer she falls in love with and a wealthy older man she marries.

In a 1976 interview with Film Comment magazine and quoted by the Pulp Serenade web site, Cain said that "in my stories there's usually stuff that you wouldn't think any human being would tell at all."

"I've just finished a book called The Cocktail Waitress, where the girl tells her story, and there's some pretty intimate stuff. This girl, like most women, is very reticent about some things – you know, the sex scenes, where she spent the night with a guy. I had her tell enough so that what happened was clear and, at the same time, not go into details. Once she lingered with a sex scene, as if she wanted to tell it," Cain said in the magazine interview.

The manuscript includes numerous notes and edits by Cain, according to Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime.

"It’s a bit hard to say how close to his death the last revisions were, since they’re handwritten and undated, but I believe he wrote the first draft of the book around 1975 and he died in 1977, so any revisions pretty much had to have been made close to the time of his death. There are numerous handwritten notes and edits by Cain; I’ve spent much of the past few months working on deciphering them," said Ardai.

Cain also wrote several novels not considered crime fiction, such as Serenade and Mildred Pierce, which was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1945 starring Joan Crawford and an intriguing 2011 HBO series starring Kate Winslet.

Cain was quoted as disliking being labeled as a hard-boiled author: “I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called.”

In the introduction to Double Indemnity, Cain said: “I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent.”

I hope 2012 brings a renewed interest to Cain's wonderful work.

Super User 2
Wednesday, 04 January 2012 05:01

James_M._Cain091911Judging from the start I have on mysteries that will be published this year, 2012 is shaping up to be a very good year indeed.

One of the hot new novels scheduled to be published this year will be from one of the genre's masters -- James M. Cain, the late author of such noir classics as The Postman Rings Twice and Double Indemnity.

Hard Case Crime plans to publish during October, 2012, Cain's novel The Cocktail Waitress, the last book he wrote before his death in 1977, but which was never published.

The Cocktail Waitress is the story of Joan Medford, a beautiful young widow who begins to work in a bar following the death of her husband under "suspicious circumstances." There she meets a handsome young schemer she falls in love with and a wealthy older man she marries.

In a 1976 interview with Film Comment magazine and quoted by the Pulp Serenade web site, Cain said that "in my stories there's usually stuff that you wouldn't think any human being would tell at all."

"I've just finished a book called The Cocktail Waitress, where the girl tells her story, and there's some pretty intimate stuff. This girl, like most women, is very reticent about some things – you know, the sex scenes, where she spent the night with a guy. I had her tell enough so that what happened was clear and, at the same time, not go into details. Once she lingered with a sex scene, as if she wanted to tell it," Cain said in the magazine interview.

The manuscript includes numerous notes and edits by Cain, according to Charles Ardai, founder and editor of Hard Case Crime.

"It’s a bit hard to say how close to his death the last revisions were, since they’re handwritten and undated, but I believe he wrote the first draft of the book around 1975 and he died in 1977, so any revisions pretty much had to have been made close to the time of his death. There are numerous handwritten notes and edits by Cain; I’ve spent much of the past few months working on deciphering them," said Ardai.

Cain also wrote several novels not considered crime fiction, such as Serenade and Mildred Pierce, which was made into an Oscar-winning movie in 1945 starring Joan Crawford and an intriguing 2011 HBO series starring Kate Winslet.

Cain was quoted as disliking being labeled as a hard-boiled author: “I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called.”

In the introduction to Double Indemnity, Cain said: “I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent.”

I hope 2012 brings a renewed interest to Cain's wonderful work.

The Chalk Girl
Oline Cogdill

If there ever is ancestry.com for fiction characters, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn Lisbeth Salander and Kathy Mallory are distant cousins. Both grew up as near-feral children, both are misunderstood and both can be lethal when pushed. Both also are one millimeter from a life of lawlessness—Lisbeth saved by her computing skills and Mallory because she is a NYPD detective.

Mallory’s virulent persona and her compassion for victims enhance the strong plot of The Chalk Girl, Carol O’Connell’s 10th novel in this series. The last Mallory outing was Find Me in 2006 and her absence is attributed to the three months she simply disappeared after walking away from the Special Crimes Unit. While she has not been okay’d to return to duty, few challenge Mallory when she silently and mysteriously comes back to work on the day that chaos reigns in the city. Hundreds of rats are overrunning Central Park; the bodies of one man and two women, one of whom is still alive, have been found hanging in the trees; and an eight-year-old girl named Coco is wandering around, seemingly lost and abandoned.

Mallory immediately recognizes a kindred spirit in Coco, who has Williams’s disease, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder, and may have witnessed the kidnapping of the male murder victim. Complicating the case is that Coco herself had been kidnapped by the murdered man, a rich pedophile. Mallory links the bodies in park with that of a decades-old homicide and three wealthy, dysfunctional families.

O’Connell smoothly returns to her character who is as complex and enigmatic as ever. Mallory’s kindness to Coco doesn’t mean she is softening, but reflects that she knows first-hand the trauma the child has been through. The tightly coiled plot briskly moves in unexpected avenues, guided by Mallory’s unyielding sense of justice.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 04 January 2012 08:01

oconnell_chalkgirlKathy Mallory returns after a long absence in The Chalk Girl, the 10th novel in this series.

Get Justified With Elmore Leonard
Oline Cogdill

justified2_olyphant.jpg

Justified didn't start out to be quite the involving piece of work that it has become.


The FX series about US Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by the intriguing Timothy Olyphant, top) started as the 2001 novella Fire in the Hole by crime writer Elmore Leonard.

Actually more of a short story published in the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance, Fire in the Hole sets the premise on which the TV series is based. Givens is sent back to Kentucky where he grew up to shut down Boyd Crowder, a Bible-quoting neo-Nazi with a penchant for terrorist acts.

The two men share a history and it becomes obvious that it was luck that each ended up on the other side of the law. Characters who thrive on the FX series don't make it to the end in Fire in the Hole.

The FX series, which returns at 10 pm Jan. 17, captures Elmore's flair for creating iconic characters, such as Givens and Crowder, as well as the author's masterful way with dialogue. Leonard has always been able to say so much with so few words, using simple dialogue that's loaded with depth. The FX producers wisely continue Leonard's approach to dialogue.

(As someone who grew up near Paducah, Kentucky, I can tell you that the accents are dead-on.)

The series also illustrates a recurring theme in Leonard's 44 novels—the thin line that is ever shifting between good and evil.

One critic mentioned that "Leonard's books put characters of dubious goodness and charming badness on a collision course." I'd say that's about right. Leonard's criminals exist in a universe in which they are indeed the heroes of their own stories. In Leonard's novels, black and white don't exist; even gray may be too definitive.

Leonard, who started as a writer of westerns and occasionally returns that genre, also infused a strong western element to Fire in the Hole. Givens is there to clean up his hometown; that he has to deal with his shady family, his connection to the area criminals and his own demons are not situations that Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke ever dealt with.


The last season of Justified was magnificent. Just watching Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a crime family, was mesmerizing. Martindale, of course, won't be back; Mags drank her last moonshine and Martindale took her richly deserved Emmy.

Season 3, which begins on Jan. 17, will see the return of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) to the criminal life.

leonardelmore_raylanxBut Boyd and his crew will not be the only ones making a play to rule the Harlan underworld. Givens will be up against dirty politicians, hidden fortunes, a mysterious man named “Limehouse” and an enterprising and lethal criminal from the Motor City.

The ever-watchable Carla Gugino will play Karen Goodall, who has a history with Givens, which should make his relationship with Winona (Natalie Zea) interesting.

As ever, Olyphant is perfect as Givens, giving a nuanced performance to this complicated character. (On a personal note, I have to say that Olyphant is quite easy on the eyes. He and Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice make crime fighting a handsome business.)

The television screen isn't the only place that will see the return of Raylan Givens. Leonard's new novel Raylan debuts the same day as the return of the FX series.

Leonard has been working on a full-length novel about Raylan for a year or so.

In Raylan, the marshal tackles a pair of dope-dealing brothers, a nurse who sells kidneys on the black market and a ruthless coal executive.

Elmore Leonard in print and on TV with Timothy Olyphant. Who could ask for more?

PHOTO: Timothy Olyphant/FX photo

Super User 2
Sunday, 15 January 2012 05:01

justified2_olyphant.jpg

Justified didn't start out to be quite the involving piece of work that it has become.


The FX series about US Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by the intriguing Timothy Olyphant, top) started as the 2001 novella Fire in the Hole by crime writer Elmore Leonard.

Actually more of a short story published in the collection When the Women Come Out to Dance, Fire in the Hole sets the premise on which the TV series is based. Givens is sent back to Kentucky where he grew up to shut down Boyd Crowder, a Bible-quoting neo-Nazi with a penchant for terrorist acts.

The two men share a history and it becomes obvious that it was luck that each ended up on the other side of the law. Characters who thrive on the FX series don't make it to the end in Fire in the Hole.

The FX series, which returns at 10 pm Jan. 17, captures Elmore's flair for creating iconic characters, such as Givens and Crowder, as well as the author's masterful way with dialogue. Leonard has always been able to say so much with so few words, using simple dialogue that's loaded with depth. The FX producers wisely continue Leonard's approach to dialogue.

(As someone who grew up near Paducah, Kentucky, I can tell you that the accents are dead-on.)

The series also illustrates a recurring theme in Leonard's 44 novels—the thin line that is ever shifting between good and evil.

One critic mentioned that "Leonard's books put characters of dubious goodness and charming badness on a collision course." I'd say that's about right. Leonard's criminals exist in a universe in which they are indeed the heroes of their own stories. In Leonard's novels, black and white don't exist; even gray may be too definitive.

Leonard, who started as a writer of westerns and occasionally returns that genre, also infused a strong western element to Fire in the Hole. Givens is there to clean up his hometown; that he has to deal with his shady family, his connection to the area criminals and his own demons are not situations that Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke ever dealt with.


The last season of Justified was magnificent. Just watching Margo Martindale as Mags Bennett, the matriarch of a crime family, was mesmerizing. Martindale, of course, won't be back; Mags drank her last moonshine and Martindale took her richly deserved Emmy.

Season 3, which begins on Jan. 17, will see the return of Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) to the criminal life.

leonardelmore_raylanxBut Boyd and his crew will not be the only ones making a play to rule the Harlan underworld. Givens will be up against dirty politicians, hidden fortunes, a mysterious man named “Limehouse” and an enterprising and lethal criminal from the Motor City.

The ever-watchable Carla Gugino will play Karen Goodall, who has a history with Givens, which should make his relationship with Winona (Natalie Zea) interesting.

As ever, Olyphant is perfect as Givens, giving a nuanced performance to this complicated character. (On a personal note, I have to say that Olyphant is quite easy on the eyes. He and Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice make crime fighting a handsome business.)

The television screen isn't the only place that will see the return of Raylan Givens. Leonard's new novel Raylan debuts the same day as the return of the FX series.

Leonard has been working on a full-length novel about Raylan for a year or so.

In Raylan, the marshal tackles a pair of dope-dealing brothers, a nurse who sells kidneys on the black market and a ruthless coal executive.

Elmore Leonard in print and on TV with Timothy Olyphant. Who could ask for more?

PHOTO: Timothy Olyphant/FX photo

Portland's Murder by the Book
Oline Cogdill

murderbythebook4_portland

Mid-morning on a Tuesday normally isn't a prime shopping time. Yet, there's a steady stream of customers dropping by Murder by the Book, a charming bookstore tucked between a lovely old duplex and a store that sells cutlery, T-shirts and gifts on a small eclectic block abutting a residential area in Portland, Oregon. A variety of restaurants, pizza places and boutiques are nearby.


The customers are a mix of local residents, neighbors from down the street and out-of-towners. One couple has driven several hours and is prowling the aisles loading up two hand-held baskets, checking off the titles on a list they are holding, occasionally asking for help. Their preference is cozies but the pair is open to other types of novels.

It's business as usual for Murder by the Book, which has been serving Portland readers since 1983.

"Portland is a big walking town and the Hawthorne area [of Portland] is a destination spot," said store manager Jean May, who has been with Murder by the Book since 1986. "People come to Hawthorne for the restaurants, the coffee shops and the shopping, plus we are near a park. And they discover us. We also have an active business association—many of the stores on Hawthorne are locally owned businesses—and we promote each other. We are all part of a community."

Like other bookstores specializing in mystery fiction, Murder by the Book knows its customers.

"It's like being a bartender," said May. "People talk to you and not just about books. The relationship isn't just about selling, it's about trust. Our customers look to us as someone whose opinion they can trust about a book. You keep your customer in mind and suggest books they will want to read. Our customers are not afraid to try new authors. I also will tell our customers that a book isn't for them. They trust us."

Naturally, May is a fan of the genre. "Why else would I be here?" she said with a smile. "There's a mystery out there for every kind of reader. I like people to tell me what they like, even if they say they don't read a mystery. I can find a mystery for them." May's daughter, Jordan Foster, inherited her mother's love of the genre and is now a book critic.

A presence on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are standard now for bookstores of all sizes as are a newsletter and reviews of new issues. In addition to new hardcovers and paperbacks, the store tries to keep in stock all the novels in a series and carries a selection of used books for sale. Murder by the Book also has found success in other marketing plans. The store will rent hardcovers to readers. Some of those who rent can't afford the price of a hardcover or lack the space for a home library.

Jana Flores of Portland is one of the store's frequent renters. She was returning the latest from J.A. Jance, Tana French and Jan Burke and was deciding which other books to rent. "This is a great store and they make great suggestions," Flores said. "I rent the hardcovers and then buy the paperbacks. I ask that all my gifts be gift certificates to Murder by the Book. I don't want anything else."

That kind of customer loyalty inspires the store's staff.

"Our philosophy is that we are here because we are passionate about books and we enjoy the hand-selling process," said co-owner Barbara Tom.

murderbythebook5_portlandPortland's Murder by the Book was begun in 1983 by Jill Hinckley, a huge Rex Stout fan who named her store after the 1951 Nero Wolfe novel. Hinckley was joined a couple of years later by co-owner Carolyn Lane.

When Hinckley retired in 2008, Barbara Tom became a partner. Along with store manager May, the staff includes Nick Slosser, Jackie McQuiston and John Caruso.

The store is well organized and arranged by sub-genre with novels listed in chronological order, with new and used side by side. The owners and staff's sense of humor is evident in the signs that divide the various categories. The Butler Did It is for the Golden Age novels; legal thrillers are found in A Reasonable Doubt. Guess which authors are in the Wild Women: Flashy, sassy & a little trashy section.

Murder by the Book also hosts a number of book signings. During one of the hottest Augusts a couple of years "a bestselling author" arrived the day the air conditioner broke. It was 105 degrees. No customers came but the author was upbeat and signed stock, said Tom. "We ended up talking for hours and had a great time." Craig Johnson's signing last summer was "packed," said Tom. "It's so easy to sell his books because he is very nice and his books are great."

Although Murder by the Book can get cramped during a book signing, the staff uses this to the store's advantage.

"The writers are very accommodating," said May. "During signings here, authors get a chance to talk with their readers and really connect. Rather than a formal signing in which an author only has a few minutes to talk, they are able to have an experience with the customers."

Murder by the Book's customers come in all ages and the classics sell just as well to the younger readers.

"Young women will come in seeking Agatha Christie," said Tom. "The guys want Jim Thompson, Chandler, Hammett and the noir. And after they read those, they want the new authors."

"There's a mystery for everyone," said May. "We just try to figure out which is the right mystery for which customer."

Photos: Jean May and Barbara Tom in Murder by the Book in Portland, Oregon; and the street scene outside the store. Credit: Bill Hirschman

Super User 2
Sunday, 08 January 2012 05:01

murderbythebook4_portland

Mid-morning on a Tuesday normally isn't a prime shopping time. Yet, there's a steady stream of customers dropping by Murder by the Book, a charming bookstore tucked between a lovely old duplex and a store that sells cutlery, T-shirts and gifts on a small eclectic block abutting a residential area in Portland, Oregon. A variety of restaurants, pizza places and boutiques are nearby.


The customers are a mix of local residents, neighbors from down the street and out-of-towners. One couple has driven several hours and is prowling the aisles loading up two hand-held baskets, checking off the titles on a list they are holding, occasionally asking for help. Their preference is cozies but the pair is open to other types of novels.

It's business as usual for Murder by the Book, which has been serving Portland readers since 1983.

"Portland is a big walking town and the Hawthorne area [of Portland] is a destination spot," said store manager Jean May, who has been with Murder by the Book since 1986. "People come to Hawthorne for the restaurants, the coffee shops and the shopping, plus we are near a park. And they discover us. We also have an active business association—many of the stores on Hawthorne are locally owned businesses—and we promote each other. We are all part of a community."

Like other bookstores specializing in mystery fiction, Murder by the Book knows its customers.

"It's like being a bartender," said May. "People talk to you and not just about books. The relationship isn't just about selling, it's about trust. Our customers look to us as someone whose opinion they can trust about a book. You keep your customer in mind and suggest books they will want to read. Our customers are not afraid to try new authors. I also will tell our customers that a book isn't for them. They trust us."

Naturally, May is a fan of the genre. "Why else would I be here?" she said with a smile. "There's a mystery out there for every kind of reader. I like people to tell me what they like, even if they say they don't read a mystery. I can find a mystery for them." May's daughter, Jordan Foster, inherited her mother's love of the genre and is now a book critic.

A presence on the Internet, Facebook and Twitter are standard now for bookstores of all sizes as are a newsletter and reviews of new issues. In addition to new hardcovers and paperbacks, the store tries to keep in stock all the novels in a series and carries a selection of used books for sale. Murder by the Book also has found success in other marketing plans. The store will rent hardcovers to readers. Some of those who rent can't afford the price of a hardcover or lack the space for a home library.

Jana Flores of Portland is one of the store's frequent renters. She was returning the latest from J.A. Jance, Tana French and Jan Burke and was deciding which other books to rent. "This is a great store and they make great suggestions," Flores said. "I rent the hardcovers and then buy the paperbacks. I ask that all my gifts be gift certificates to Murder by the Book. I don't want anything else."

That kind of customer loyalty inspires the store's staff.

"Our philosophy is that we are here because we are passionate about books and we enjoy the hand-selling process," said co-owner Barbara Tom.

murderbythebook5_portlandPortland's Murder by the Book was begun in 1983 by Jill Hinckley, a huge Rex Stout fan who named her store after the 1951 Nero Wolfe novel. Hinckley was joined a couple of years later by co-owner Carolyn Lane.

When Hinckley retired in 2008, Barbara Tom became a partner. Along with store manager May, the staff includes Nick Slosser, Jackie McQuiston and John Caruso.

The store is well organized and arranged by sub-genre with novels listed in chronological order, with new and used side by side. The owners and staff's sense of humor is evident in the signs that divide the various categories. The Butler Did It is for the Golden Age novels; legal thrillers are found in A Reasonable Doubt. Guess which authors are in the Wild Women: Flashy, sassy & a little trashy section.

Murder by the Book also hosts a number of book signings. During one of the hottest Augusts a couple of years "a bestselling author" arrived the day the air conditioner broke. It was 105 degrees. No customers came but the author was upbeat and signed stock, said Tom. "We ended up talking for hours and had a great time." Craig Johnson's signing last summer was "packed," said Tom. "It's so easy to sell his books because he is very nice and his books are great."

Although Murder by the Book can get cramped during a book signing, the staff uses this to the store's advantage.

"The writers are very accommodating," said May. "During signings here, authors get a chance to talk with their readers and really connect. Rather than a formal signing in which an author only has a few minutes to talk, they are able to have an experience with the customers."

Murder by the Book's customers come in all ages and the classics sell just as well to the younger readers.

"Young women will come in seeking Agatha Christie," said Tom. "The guys want Jim Thompson, Chandler, Hammett and the noir. And after they read those, they want the new authors."

"There's a mystery for everyone," said May. "We just try to figure out which is the right mystery for which customer."

Photos: Jean May and Barbara Tom in Murder by the Book in Portland, Oregon; and the street scene outside the store. Credit: Bill Hirschman