My Book: Confessions of a Comic Book Dilettante
Jack O’Connell

oconnell_jack_portraitJack O'Connell Finds Mr. X


I admit it. I’m one of those writers so enamored of fiction that I elevate its needs and its virtues and its abilities above those of history. Be forewarned. Should I ever find a way to fashion my sedate life into a memoir, we should all steer clear of Oprah’s guest booker. My compulsion to invent would make James Frey blush and shudder.

So, I want to insist that I was one of those pop maven kids lodged forever out on the extreme and foggy cutting edge. That back in the ’60s, when my peers were spinning 45s of the Monkees, I was pondering the psychedelia of Roky Erickson over my Hawaiian Punch. That while my neighborhood buddies were lining up to see The Love Bug, I was sneaking into the balcony to witness Midnight Cowboy. And that while my pals were kicking back and reading about Superman’s latest go-round with Lex Luthor, I was awash in the mystic sputterings of Mr. Natural and the pharmacological safaris of the Fabulous Freak Brothers.

I want to insist that all of that happened and a boatload more. But, gun to head—or, really, skeptical eyebrow raised in my general direction—I’d cave and admit the truth. Or, at very least, the closest approximation to the truth of which I’m capable.

My novel, The Resurrectionist, is chock full of comic books. Which might lead the reader to suspect that the same could be said of my childhood. In fact, my relationship with comics while growing up in mill town New England was fleeting, sporadic, and haphazard. I would like nothing better than to report warm memories of breathless, late night, flashlight illuminated, under-the-covers readings of The Hulk and Green Lantern and The Fantastic Four. But the truth is a little more prosaic, if not less revelatory.

oconnell_jackFrom about 1967 or so, the only comic book I read regularly was Treasure Chest—“the Catholic Comic Book,” as the slogan baldly proclaimed. I’ve always believed that Treasure Chest was the product of a rare compromise among the black-habited nuns of my youth. I can still imagine them, encircled like Shakespearean crones around a bubbling cauldron, some ancient Mother Superior deciding, “All right, if they must read comic books, they’ll read our comic book!” Supply your own high-pitched cackle.

Treasure Chest featured the wholesome adventures of Chuck White, an all-American boy running forever through the suburbs of the American Century collecting moral lessons. Think Leave it to Beaver without the edginess. The fact is, I loved the pulpy thing in all its cheery, dogmatic glory. And to this day, there’s a three or four year run of issues mouldering away in a box in my attic.

In general, comic books for me were a summertime phenomenon—like fireflies and Italian ice. But when my father walked my siblings and me up to the beachfront penny candy store, and I stood before those black wire spin racks studying their offerings, I’m embarrassed to admit that, unlike so many of my demographic cohort, I did not select the coolness that was Marvel or D.C. Go ahead. Laugh and sneer. I strolled home, sunburned, along the boardwalk grasping Archie and any number of imprints from the Harvey line—Sad Sack, Richie Rich, Little Lotta.

There is an almost unbearable innocence attached to my memories of these comic books. They are so utterly of another era that they feel near archaic to me. And in this way they stand as polar opposites to the comic book that appears repeatedly in my novel.

That comic book is called Limbo and it tells the story of a group of Eastern European circus freaks and their wanderings through bizarre landscapes in search of sanctuary from a murderous pursuer. Limbo is a dark, adult, complex story. I like to think of the book as what might have developed had Kafka snuck up on Tintin creator Hergé, stabbed the artist to death with his own charcoal pencil and then highjacked the Belgian’s story.

oconnell_theresurrectionistWhich raises the question: how did I move from Treasure Chest and Richie Rich to the hermaphrodite and the mule-faced boy of the Limbo universe?

Well, let’s face it—lots of strange things happened in the ’80s. And while we might want to forget many of them, I’ll always treasure the memory of strolling, on impulse, into a new comic book store—mainly because it was located in a nearby abandoned factory building—and scoring the first issue of Mr. X, Dean Motter’s short-lived, but electric tale of an insomniac architect in a neon-splattered tenderloin district. The comic was full to bursting with all the coolest tropes—film noir, dystopian SF, Bauhaus design, German Expressionism. The story was hip, inventive, surprising, and smart. I was hooked by the checkout line.

Mr. X kicked down a door for me that remains wide-open to this day, allowing a stream of rich narrative to light up my middle-aged melon. Motter’s rococo world may not have lasted long, but it gave me a gorgeous map and a hard shove into the work of Neal Gaiman and Art Spiegelman, Grant Morrison and Warren Ellis.

Beyond this, it provided the inspiration for the crucial subplot that would make The Resurrectionist a richer, deeper novel about the ways we find meaning in the most unexpected stories.

The Resurrectionist, by Jack O’Connell, Algonquin Books, April 2008, $24.95

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

Teri Duerr
Thursday, 09 February 2012 01:02

Jack O'Connell Finds Mr. X

My Book: in the Name of Research
Jonathan Santlofer

santlofer_jonathanJonathan Santlofer and the Art of Skull Collecting


Scientists working for DARPA, the science arm of the Department of Defense, are busy figuring out ways to make soldiers fearless, keeping them awake for weeks at a time, producing adhesives that will transform them into human geckos able to scale walls, attaching biodynotic limbs that move and think on their own, and that’s just for starters. I discovered this while researching my latest book, The Murder Notebook, featuring police sketch artist Nate Rodriguez.

I am often obsessed by my research. When I wrote my second novel, Color Blind, I read case studies of the criminally insane so horrifying I had nightmares for weeks; researching hate groups for Anatomy of Fear made me paranoid about leaving my house; writing my three Kate McKinnon novels brought me closer, as they say, to my feminine side, cruising high-end women’s clothes that I thought Kate might wear and making decisions about her hairstyle (which my fashion editor daughter insisted be changed when Kate moved downtown).

Now there is Nate Rodriguez, my Spanish-Jewish police sketch artist, who has brought me places I would never have dreamed. It’s true, I sometimes imagine myself as Nate—tall, cool, ruggedly handsome, though a troubled little boy at heart —a guaranteed chick magnet. But then I face the mirror, and reality sets in. Before Nate, I considered myself totally pragmatic. Now, thanks to his Santerian grandmother (a composite character of several grandmothers I have known and loved, and not just my own), I am carving my name into votive candles, wearing beads and shells for luck, and have undergone a limpia—a ritual cleansing—in the backroom of a botanica, where I stood, shirtless, having gladioli rubbed into my chest and egg yolks poured over the nape of my neck.

santlofer_murdernotebookThe Murder Notebook brought me back to my preteen interest in science (from ages 12 to 14 I harbored a secret desire to become an astronaut). I started reading the New York Times science section cover to cover, subscribed to Scientific American Mind, and had long talks with a scientist friend about such terrifying topics as human flesh-eating disease.

I do get a respite from the grisly research since all of my books feature illustrations that I draw myself. In fact I created my sketch artist protagonist just so I could make artwork for my novels. Of course in Nate’s line of work the subjects are mainly thieves, rapists, and murderers, but they are still faces, and fun to draw.

Research can get expensive. And it’s not just the books and magazine subscriptions. For this particular novel I had to research forensic anthropology because Nate gets a very specific assignment from the NYPD: to recreate the face of a dead man based entirely on his skull. Though not exactly new for fictional Nate, who received training at Quantico, for me (the one who has to make Nate’s artwork), it was a challenge. I started with the requisite reading, then studied step-by-step illustrations and when I felt up to the task of making the sculpture—which I planned to photograph in stages—I selected an armature, bought clay, and ordered a specially crafted skull (bullet holes in the forehead included) from a movie prop company in England. I did not anticipate that the skull would look so real it would be held in customs for months as inspectors debated its authenticity while I nervously awaited the late-night knock at the door, arrest papers, calling my lawyer, trying to explain what it was I was doing—all in the name of research. Impatient, I bought a second, plastic skull, but decided it looked too fake, then bought a real one. By the end I had started making paintings of the reconstruction stages and ended up using those instead.

My skull collection—plastic, composite, and real—now sits on top of my bookcase. I enjoyed the work it took to make the drawings realistic, and I enjoyed all the research that make the rest of the book as authentic as possible—even getting cleansed and purified in Spanish Harlem. The fact is I have learned and experienced things I never would have otherwise, and I honestly can’t wait to see where my next book’s research will lead me.

The Murder Notebook, Jonathan Santlofer, Morrow, June 2008, $24.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 03:02

Jonathan Santlofer and the Art of Skull Collecting

My Book: Liar
Jess Lourey

lourey_jess_smallJess Lourey Explains How Cheaters Never Win


It was fall 2006, and I was teaching a class in Critical Thinking. Every week students would read a chapter, take a quiz, and complete a few short analytical writing assignments. I was happy with how the course and the semester were going.

I even had a little time carved out to read, so when a friend lent me his yellowed paperback copy of And Then There Were None, I was thrilled. I had just gotten Knee High by the Fourth of July off to my editor and needed to grease my mystery wheels to write August Moon, the fourth book in my Murder-by-Month series.

That’s when the train hit the cows. One of my very bright Critical Thinking students came to tell me that two of her classmates were cheating. She had seen them share answers on the weekly quizzes two weeks in a row. I thanked her, said I would handle it, and sent her on her way. Then, I looked up the test results of the alleged cheaters. Let’s call them Liar and Pants-on-Fire.

It was abundantly clear that Liar and Pants-on-Fire had in fact cheated on every single quiz. I called them into my office and laid out the evidence.

Liar was good. She looked me in the eye and said, “We don’t cheat.”

“Really?” I asked. “Eight weeks, and you two coincidentally take the same test back to back, the first one always getting a few wrong, the second one always getting them all right, and alternating who goes first every other week like clockwork?”

“Yeah. Just a coincidence.” Smugness.

I turned to Pants-on-Fire. She looked ready to cry. I felt bad for her, in a way. “You have the same story?”

Liar elbowed her in the ribs. Pants-on-fire nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “Then I have to take it to your program advisor.” I did, and she told me she was pretty sure they cheated in her class, too, but her son was dating one of them and so she didn’t want to start trouble for them. I went to my union rep to get his advice. He said they had cheated in his class, too, but he figured karma would get them eventually.

lourey_augustmoonWhy wait?

I called Liar and Pants-on-Fire back into my office and told them they would both lose all the quiz points, which would drop them a grade in the course. Also, a note would go in their student file explaining the situation. Pants-on-Fire looked relieved, but Liar tossed her glossy brunette hair over her shoulder, pushed up her pink Aeropostale sleeves, and hissed, “You better watch your back.”

The next week, I was called into the Dean’s office. He was pale. Liar’s father, an influential lawyer in Minneapolis, had stopped by. It seems Mr. Liar was close friends with Dr. Jerry Falwell and had been instrumental in setting up the Liberty University School of Law. Mr. Liar was concerned because earlier in the semester, I had required students to read a portion of the Critical Thinking textbook that covered evolution as if it was a fact, and in doing so had discriminated against his daughter and her belief system. The picketers were on their way. The media was coming. I should be prepared for my phone to ring day and night. My kids would be followed to school. I would be outed for the poisonous heathen I was.

However, if I refrained from putting the accusation of cheating in Liar and Pants-on-Fire’s permanent files, didn’t dock them the points, and instead had them write an apology paper that made clear they were sorry but never mentioned what for, Mr. Liar would call off the hounds. The evolution thing had maybe just been a slip-up, see. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

I’m ashamed to say that, after breaking out in hives that didn’t go away for three days, I took the deal. I just didn’t have the cojones to fight that fight. Liar and Pants-on-Fire graduated with honors, no cheating on their file. Oh, and in a classy touch, for her apology paper, Liar compared herself to Jesus, who had also been wrongly persecuted, and wrote that she was sorry that that had happened to him, too.

But the story doesn’t end there because you know the one place you can find justice when there isn’t any in the world? Mysteries. I took Liar and I plopped her in Battle Lake, Minnesota, where she makes frequent and unflatteringly accurate appearances in August Moon. Probably not in the role you would think, however, because remember that I was reading Christie’s book at the time. And Then There Were None is all about hiding the clues in plain sight, and the cadences of that book are woven throughout my own.

I’m pleased to say the story has a happy ending. For me.

August Moon, Jess Lourey, Midnight Ink, June 2008, $14.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 04:02

Jess Lourey Explains How Cheaters Never Win

My Book: My Town
James Scott Bell

bell_jamesscottJames Scott Bell on the Pleasures of L.A.


I have a number of writer friends who set their novels in exotic locations—Hawaii, Europe, Australia, the Amazon. They do this because they get to travel for research, have fun, and take a fat tax deduction in April.

They chide me because I always set my books in Los Angeles. My tax write-off consists of some mileage and the occasional day pass on the Metro.

So when I started a new thriller series featuring a Los Angeles lawyer named Ty Buchanan, they howled that I was, once again, missing out on one of the great perks of the writing life.

I tell them I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because Los Angeles is my town. I grew up, got educated, and got married in L.A. I’ve waited tables, ushered in movie theaters, practiced law, raised my kids here. I’ve shaken with the ground and wiped out in the ocean waves.

L.A. is where I choose to live.

This my friends cannot believe.

So I call them from Gladstone’s as I down oysters and watch the sun set on the Pacific. Or from the Hollywood Bowl on warm summer nights, before the concert begins. Or from a jazz club, or the Getty.

They try to laugh it off, but it’s laughter tinged with longing. L.A. has a way of getting to you. Yes, we’ve got traffic and crime, and have it more intensely than most other places. But that’s part of our vibe. It always feels like anything can happen, and often does.

From Pershing Square to MacArthur Park, Silver Lake to Koreatown, Studio City to Chatsworth. Throw a stone in any direction and you’re sure to hit a plot line or colorful character. Even our history is compelling. Consider celebrity trials. We put them on the map.

It started with Clarence Darrow, who defended the McNamara brothers back in 1911 on charges of blowing up the Times building. Then Darrow was charged with the attempted bribe of a juror.

So who else to defend him but L.A.’s own Earl Rogers? In the same courtroom at the same time, the two greatest trial lawyers who ever lived.

bell_trydarknessDarrow was acquitted.

It happened in L.A.

Here, Errol Flynn was tried for statutory rape and found not guilty. Robert Mitchum got nabbed for marijuana possession, did 60 days, then resumed his career. And of course there’s O.J., Robert Blake, and, still pending, Phil Spector.

We’ve got the celebrity trial market cornered.

And how about noir, my genre of choice? Can any location beat L.A.?

Are you kidding me?

Read Chandler. Michael Connelly. Robert Crais.

Take a look at films like He Walked by Night, Criss Cross, Too Late for Tears, and Collateral.

No other city has the neon lit, burnt orange, seamy underbelly pulse that my town has.

So it was really no contest on where I’d set my books. Because my narrative imagination has been shaped by Joe Friday and Perry Mason, Phillip Marlowe and Harry Bosch. By City Hall, Chinatown, and the Valley.

Why would I want to live or write anywhere else?

Of course, there’s nothing to stop Ty Buchanan from chasing a lead down the Amazon, if he must.

But he’ll always come home to L.A.

Try Darkness, James Scott Bell, Center Street, July, 2008, $21.99

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 04:02

James Scott Bell on the Pleasures of L.A.

My Book: Cozy You Say? I Say Scary.
G.M. Malliet

malliet_gmG.M. Malliet Considers the Cozy

Photo: Joe Henson

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys of London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

That’s Sherlock Holmes, of course, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.” But take away that “Watson” for a minute. Doesn’t it sound exactly like Miss Jane Marple—sipping her tea, plying her knitting needles, and commenting on the latest outbreak of fiendishly clever murders in and around St. Mary Mead?

There is nothing, when you get right down to it, scarier than a “cozy” mystery: a mystery with a closed setting and a limited number of suspects, where the killer knows the victim. At least in the vilest alleys of London, you’d be on your guard. You’d know better than to walk those mean streets in the first place. But in your own quaint little village, you might be placidly hoeing your crop of vegetable marrows or haranguing volunteers at the village fete, oblivious to the murderous gleam in your neighbor’s eye. “Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser”—Holmes again.

When I set out to write Death of a Cozy Writer I knew the meanest street my characters could walk was the High, and the walls of nearby Waverley Court could contain a world of wickedness. To my mind, no situation could be more fraught with danger than a family gathering at the manor to “celebrate” the impending nuptials of the cozy writer of the title, the curmudgeonly Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk—especially with a family as fractious as the Beauclerk-Fisks, especially with a cozy writer as curmudgeonly as Sir Adrian. For years he’d played a game of changing his will, disinheriting and re-inheriting each of his children in turn. Now he’d upped the stakes by bringing a new wife into the game.

These people are walking straight into a lethal situation with their eyes tightly closed.

I know some authors writing in the Agatha Christie tradition object to the term “cozy,” and here am I, putting it in the title. This marketing shorthand, by the way, apparently began life as a pejorative thrown by Raymond Chandler at what he may have thought of as books filled with teapots and knitting patterns. That “cozies” are really more about tangled human relationships than tangled skeins of yarn doesn’t stop the people who find the term convenient: people like booksellers and book reviewers and, yes, readers.

The term is limiting, no question, and probably frightens off many readers who wouldn’t be caught dead (excuse the pun) reading anything less gritty than the latest Pelecanos release. They might go so far as to reread an Agatha Christie, no problem, but a cozy?

malliet_deathofacozywriterThere’s a further category of readers who have no idea what a cozy mystery is. I know that’s a hard concept for mystery aficionados to grasp, but I’ve seen the blank stares when I tell the average reader on the street the title of my book.

But it’s too late to change it now. The book came by its title in part because I was submitting it for a Malice Domestic grant. Since Malice is among the coziest of the mystery conventions, I knew the grant committee would certainly get the title. It might make them smile, and they might then give me money to finish the book. Besides, Robert Barnard, to whose work Cozy is very much an homage, had already used, to splendid effect, Death of a Mystery Writer.

But having a “cozy writer” in the story gave me a vast range of conventions to poke gentle fun at, in a way that “crime writer” or “classic mystery writer” would not have done: the vast, isolated manor house, swathed in pre-Christmas snow; the decidedly sinister butler; the greedy patriarch; the grasping heirs; the cats (there are three in the book, but they don’t solve the crime. I have my limits).

I couldn’t resist the only title that fit.

If you object to the term, please overlook it this time, and remember that nothing beats a family get-together for sheer heart-stopping terror. After this, I promise, I’ll stick with “classic mystery.”

Death of a Cozy Writer, G.M. Malliet, Midnight Ink, July $13.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 05:02

G.M. Malliet Considers the Cozy

My Book: the Smart Guys Marching Society
Dennis Palumbo

palumbo_dennisDennis Palumbo Marches With Smart Guys


Most of the stories in this collection feature a group of unlikely amateur sleuths who call themselves—only half-kiddingly—“The Smart Guys Marching Society.”

Just so you know, their exploits fall under the category known to most crime fans as “armchair mysteries.” That is, they usually take place in one room, in which the clever main character listens to a story told by someone else in attendance, and, based solely on what’s been related, solves a baffling crime.

I first fell in love with this style of crime story as a teenager, when I was introduced—alas, not formally—to Agatha Christie. Her “Tuesday Night Club” stories featured a recurring cast of characters who met on the designated night and tried to solve mysterious crimes. As one self-important person after another invariably failed to figure out whodunnit, it remained only for the beloved Miss Marple to shed light on the problem.

Soon after, I learned that Isaac Asimov, usually known for his science fiction works, had also tried his hand at armchair mysteries. His “Black Widowers” stories featured a similar set of erudite, articulate characters—all men—who met regularly for elaborate dinners, during which they’d attempt to solve a crime or untangle a puzzle. When they failed to do so—as they inevitably did—their patient, long-suffering waiter Henry helpfully provided the answer.

With these classic stories as inspiration, I decided to try such a series myself. But I also wanted to bring a modern-day sensibility to the form. “The Smart Guys Marching Society” is the irony-drenched name chosen by four reasonably successful baby-boomers for their weekly Sunday afternoon bull sessions. Embattled males all, with assorted wives and kids and mortgages, they seek to hang onto whatever dignity is left to them in middle age by contentiously debating the issues of the day.

At least, that’s what they thought they were going to do. Somehow, though, what they often end up doing instead is solving crimes....

Or rather, trying to solve them. To their surprise, the newest member of the group—a wry, somewhat mysterious old man named Isaac—is kind of a whiz at it.

Agatha Christie’s stories about the Tuesday Club Murders were entirely fictional. But Asimov’s Black Widower stories were based on a real club.

palumbo_fromcrimetocrimeSo is the Smart Guys Marching Society.

Many years ago, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred, and I met weekly in my house in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. As in my short stories—and for similar, self-deprecating reasons—we called ourselves “The Smart Guys Marching Society.” We figured the name would imply that we didn’t really think we were all that smart—which, of course, was exactly what we did think.

Every Sunday, we’d scarf down snacks, drink beer, and discuss what Fred invariably called “the big issues.”

Trust me, it wasn’t as lame as it sounds.

Okay, maybe it was.

I’ve taken some dramatic license in these stories. For example, the dialogue and interactions among the characters, though loosely based on the attitudes and opinions of the four of us, are entirely fictional. The real Fred, Mark, and Bill are all, to a man, more intelligent, articulate, and reasonable than my narrative needs required. Believe me, they’ll be the first to say so.

Even more importantly, the only mystery we ever tried to solve involved a missing tub of artichoke dip.

However, the greatest difference between the real-life Smart Guys and the following stories is that there never was an Isaac. Part wish-fulfillment, part tribute to Asimov’s tales, part memories of my own beloved grandfather, the Isaac that populates these stories is—for better or worse—a figment of my imagination.

That said, this book wouldn’t exist without the real Smart Guys Marching Society, and the friendship—hidden under all the bad jokes, endless debate, and high rant—that grew out of those weekly Sunday get-togethers.

So thanks, guys. I hope I did us justice.

From Crime to Crime, Dennis Palumbo, Tallfellow Press, May 2008, $24.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 05:02

Dennis Palumbo Marches With Smart Guys

My Book: Can You Go Home Again?
Cheryl Solimini

solimini_acrosstheriverCheryl Solimini


It started in 1997, with a dream: I pushed through the double doors of the tavern around the corner from my childhood home. At the back of the bar was an elementary-school classmate, now all grown up, with a beautiful little blonde girl sitting quietly on his lap. What led me to meet him there, I hadn’t a clue. But I knew for sure that the little girl was dead and I had to find out who killed her.

In my waking life, I had only entered that bar once before—while wearing chaps, a holster, and a ten-gallon hat. It was Halloween. I was 11. Another neighborhood kid had dared me to go inside. I scored my first pack of SlimJims. I’d rather have had a Yoo-hoo or Pixy Stix from the candy store next door.

Soon after, my family had moved away from that tiny New Jersey town on the Hudson River—three miles long and three blocks wide, caught between a rock (The Palisades) and a hard place (New York City), bounded by a bridge and a tunnel. It’s in full view of one of the world’s most exciting cities, the postcard skyline I saw from my kitchen window. But why had I gone back there, 30 years later, in my sleep?

At the time I was working just across the river as a features editor for Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Magazine and had recently shared my theory with Ms. Clark about who had killed a beautiful little blonde girl the previous Christmas. The story was in all the tabloids. Coincidence?

Then I went to the movies. I saw Sylvester Stallone walk out of a familiar building, Robert De Niro walk down a familiar street, and Harvey Keitel walk into a tavern I had been inside once, at Halloween, when I was 11. The closing credits confirmed that Cop Land was filmed in my hometown. Coincidence?

Thomas Wolfe said you can’t go home again. But I can take a hint, so I decided to try anyway. And my dream became the first page of my first novel, Across the River. And as I revisited my old neighborhood, in person, in memory, and in research over the next 10 years, I unearthed a history as intriguing as any mystery.

In the late 1800s, the bucolic town was an upscale retreat and campgrounds for city-dwellers. From 1898 until 1971 most passed through to reach Palisades Amusement Park (“swings all day and after dark”), which sat on the cliffs above. Generations of kids climbed the cliffs to sneak through a hole in the fence to beat the admission price and lay down their change to ride Cyclone or see freak-show attractions like JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy.

solimini_cherylThe old riverfront campgrounds evolved into a bungalow colony with houses so small that rumors still persist that Barnum & Bailey Circus midgets lived there. The Colony has now become a multimillion dollar enclave populated by gangsters, pop stars, players for the Yankees and Giants, and Geraldo Rivera.

Long before Cop Land, the South End was home to several moving-picture studios and a murder: In 1921, a film director shot a young actor having an affair with his wife. He was acquitted. The scene of the crime burned down in 2000, when a blaze ripped through the site of the old Alcoa Aluminum plant, where a new condo complex was being built. The smoke obliterated the New York City skyline, if only for a few hours.

Heavy industry—from Ford cars to Jack Frost sugar—had moved into the South End at the turn of the century. As factories closed into the 1960s, the land was declared too toxic for human inhabitants. But after Governor Whitman signed the Brownfields Act in the ’90s, shopping malls, townhouses, and high-rises rose out of the sludge, and the commuter population exploded, creating tensions between old-timers and newcomers, the blue collar and the white.

In my mystery novel, the town of “Undercliff” is undergoing similar changes when Andie Rinaldi returns after nearly 25 years. Andie is in transition, too: She’s just lost her job at the country’s most respected newspaper, her big-city apartment is about to go condo and her long-distance romance is suffering from travel fatigue. Now working for a celebrity tabloid, Andie has to cross the river to report on a sensational, as-yet-unsolved murder that involves childhood friends…and enemies. Not exactly the makings of a happy reunion.

While writing about Andie’s troubles, I thought about my own former classmates. How did they turn out? I had no idea, so I created their futures, based on what I remembered of their personalities when they were 12 years old.

Then, completely out of the blue, I received an email from my best friend at the small Catholic grammar school I attended from kindergarten until sixth grade. It was our first communication in 25 years. She hadn’t become a lawyer, as I’d imagined, but she had dated lawyers, married a cop, and never missed an episode of Law & Order. Coincidence?

Since then, I’ve heard from two other classmates who are officers on the town PD, and from other childhood friends around the country. From them, I’ve learned the whereabouts of nearly everyone I went to school with.

Many left that tiny New Jersey river town not long after I did. But it appears in their dreams, too. When we have our class reunion at the town’s new bookstore, I’m bringing the Yoo-hoo and Pixy Stix.

To hell with Thomas Wolfe. You can go home again

Across the River, C. Solimini, Deadly Ink Press, June 2008, $12.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 05:02

Cheryl Solimini

My Book: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
Peggy Ehrhart

ehrhart_peggyPeggy Ehrhart


Without speaking, the man led me toward the kitchen, lit by one feeble bulb and featuring a caged rooster.

“Down here,” he said, opening a door. Fluorescent lights bathed the huge amplifiers that lined the basement walls. He began to attack the strings of an electric bass and the room throbbed with sound.

I plugged in my guitar and tried to follow along. As the man played, he arched his back and flung his head from side to side. Finally his fingers landed on a note that seemed to wrap things up, and he was still.

“When do you guys practice?” he said.

“A couple nights a month.”

“Nights can be bad.”

“How about this Thursday night?”

“Sometimes we get behind at the mattress factory and I have to stay.”

“We don’t start till eight.”

“That could work.”

I was on a recruiting mission. Our first bass player had been stolen. Someone spotted her with the oversized gig bag that signals there’s a bass inside and wooed her away for his band. If I wanted my band to survive I had to find a replacement. And the band had to survive. I was having more fun than I’d ever had in my life.

I bought an electric guitar because my son was taking lessons and I decided I would too. Eventually I formed a band that rehearsed at a Manhattan studio and played every gig that came its way.

That Thursday I had good news for my bandmates, I thought—a replacement for our purloined bass player, and he’d be showing up any minute.

We stood around while the tech guy set up the room. Then we just stood around. Eight o’clock came and went.

“He’ll be here soon,” I said.

At 8:30 I gave him a call. “Just wrapping up,” he said.

I called again at 9:30. “I’ll be there,” he said. “Leaving right away.”

I tried again at ten. “Something came up,” he said. “I’ll still try to get there.”

He didn’t come and we never heard from him again.

In my next attempt to find a new bass player, I drove down the Garden State Parkway to rendezvous with a guy I’d found through an ad in East Coast Rocker. It was daylight this time. That allowed me to see that his house looked like Anthony Perkins’ house in Psycho.

The practice room was the basement again—unfinished this time, and with an insistent sound of dripping water coming from someplace. During a break in the playing, the guy told me about his trips to Manhattan in quest of marijuana. “Let’s smoke some now!” he said with a wild grin. I demurred, happy to have the excuse of a long drive home on the Parkway.

ehrhart_sweetmanisgoneHe showed up at our rehearsal the following week, and almost immediately insulted the singer, who was also the rhythm guitar player. I certainly didn’t want to have to replace him, so as we packed up our guitars after the rehearsal, I agreed that this prospect had been a very poor excuse for a bass player and promised to redouble my recruitment efforts.

Eventually it was the singer who came to the rescue, with a recruit so new to the instrument that he showed up at his first rehearsal with the price tag still dangling from his bass.

Drummers were a problem too. The first one, Donna, was great. But her magazine editor job gave her little time to practice, and when a friend invited her to join a marching band, she decided that was where her real ambitions lay.

The next one, a guy this time, was delighted to join us—so delighted that he was determined to get one of his old buddies a spot in the band too, as a singer. The singer/rhythm-guitar player made it clear that unless I squelched that idea, I really would be replacing him next. So I squelched it.

The drummer got his revenge though.

I’d arranged for us to give a concert at the school where I was teaching. We’d be performing for my students and many of my colleagues.

The concert was scheduled for Tuesday night, but we were to spend Saturday from two to five practicing on the stage we’d be using for the real event.

Three of us showed up early. We were nervous, but convinced that a great rehearsal would guarantee a good show—and eager to get started.

Two o’clock came, but there was no drummer.

This was before the cellphone era, so all we could do was wait and, eventually, play through the set trying to hear drums in our heads.

At a quarter to five, the drummer walked in. He said he’d gotten lost, but I didn’t quite believe him. I suspected that if we’d let his buddy join the band, they’d have shown up at the stroke of two.

I waited till the concert was over—it went very well, by the way, but Wednesday morning I fired him.

Our next drummer, Pete, was a refreshing change, so cooperative and undemanding that we took to calling him “St. Peter.”

Maxx Maxwell, my sleuth in Sweet Man Is Gone, is a singer, not a guitar player like me, so the scenes where she sings are based primarily on my imagination. But she’s a bandleader too, and as determined to keep her band together as I was. When it comes to writing about the challenges bandleaders face, I’ve had enough real-life experience to fill several books.

Sweet Man Is Gone, Peggy Ehrhart, Five Star, July 2008, $25.95

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

Teri Duerr
Friday, 10 February 2012 06:02

Peggy Ehrhart

Martha Grimes: All in the Details
Oline Cogdill

grimesmartha_authorFor me, it was the gloves. Gloves so richly described with supple leather, myriad colors and different designs that I wanted to run out and buy multiple pairs.

Never mind that it was August in Florida; that I had no winter trips planned; and that it was doubtful that I could have found a store in the Sunshine State that would be stocking gloves during the summer.

Still, the more I read, the more I wanted gloves.

Blame Martha Grimes.

Sometimes it's not the sturdy plots or the rich characters that stick in your mind years after you've a mystery.

Sometimes, it's the little things that stay with you.

That's how it's often been with Martha Grimes' novels.

Grimes has been named the richly deserved honor of being Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

She'll receive this honor during the 64th annual Edgar Awards banquet to be held April 26 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City.

I'll be interviewing Martha Grimes during the Edgar symposium on April 25.

So to prepare for the interview, I have been thinking a lot about her novels, especially those 22 novels with Scotland Yard inspector Richard Jury and his friend Melrose Plant.

The gloves scenes occur in The Blue Last, which has a compelling plot about Jury investigating the accuracy of his own memory as he confronts how World War II’s devastation changed his life. The recollections of WWII are harrowing. But I also vividly remember Melrose Plant's stop at glove shop cross-country tour of Italy. I was as enchanted with the gloves as was Melrose in The Blue Last.

I delved into several Josephine Tey novels after reading Grimes' The Grave Maurice. Tey is a long-time favorite of mine so it was quite fun to rediscover an author I hadn't read in decades. I credit that reading binge on Grimes. In The Grave Maurice, Jury is recovering in the hospital; his days filled with Josephine Tey novels and watching Plant rummage through his fruit baskets. (I don't remember, but am pretty sure I also had a craving for apples and grapes.)

The Old Wine Shades — the only Jury novel named after a wine bar instead of a pub — had me longing for a lovely glass of wine. OK, so that's not so unusual, but The Old Wine Shades made me thirsty.

This will be the fourth interview I've conducted with Martha and the second one in front of an audience. Regardless of the number of times we've talked, I am very excited to interview her during Edgar week and I believe it is an honor to be asked to do this.

Oh, and when I finally did buy gloves, I purchased about 4 pair, as enchanted by the colors and styles as was my old friend Melrose.

Super User
Sunday, 12 February 2012 05:02

grimesmartha_authorFor me, it was the gloves. Gloves so richly described with supple leather, myriad colors and different designs that I wanted to run out and buy multiple pairs.

Never mind that it was August in Florida; that I had no winter trips planned; and that it was doubtful that I could have found a store in the Sunshine State that would be stocking gloves during the summer.

Still, the more I read, the more I wanted gloves.

Blame Martha Grimes.

Sometimes it's not the sturdy plots or the rich characters that stick in your mind years after you've a mystery.

Sometimes, it's the little things that stay with you.

That's how it's often been with Martha Grimes' novels.

Grimes has been named the richly deserved honor of being Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

She'll receive this honor during the 64th annual Edgar Awards banquet to be held April 26 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City.

I'll be interviewing Martha Grimes during the Edgar symposium on April 25.

So to prepare for the interview, I have been thinking a lot about her novels, especially those 22 novels with Scotland Yard inspector Richard Jury and his friend Melrose Plant.

The gloves scenes occur in The Blue Last, which has a compelling plot about Jury investigating the accuracy of his own memory as he confronts how World War II’s devastation changed his life. The recollections of WWII are harrowing. But I also vividly remember Melrose Plant's stop at glove shop cross-country tour of Italy. I was as enchanted with the gloves as was Melrose in The Blue Last.

I delved into several Josephine Tey novels after reading Grimes' The Grave Maurice. Tey is a long-time favorite of mine so it was quite fun to rediscover an author I hadn't read in decades. I credit that reading binge on Grimes. In The Grave Maurice, Jury is recovering in the hospital; his days filled with Josephine Tey novels and watching Plant rummage through his fruit baskets. (I don't remember, but am pretty sure I also had a craving for apples and grapes.)

The Old Wine Shades — the only Jury novel named after a wine bar instead of a pub — had me longing for a lovely glass of wine. OK, so that's not so unusual, but The Old Wine Shades made me thirsty.

This will be the fourth interview I've conducted with Martha and the second one in front of an audience. Regardless of the number of times we've talked, I am very excited to interview her during Edgar week and I believe it is an honor to be asked to do this.

Oh, and when I finally did buy gloves, I purchased about 4 pair, as enchanted by the colors and styles as was my old friend Melrose.

My Book: Noir Wears a Toga
Kelli Stanley

stanley_kelliKelli Stanley Paints Rome Black


So there I was in class, concentrating on Latin’s third declension. I was on the PhD track, the one-way road to Professorville. Not as dangerous as Poisonville, but then it doesn’t pay as well, either.

I’d written things all my life. Poetry? Check. As an undergraduate I used to pride myself on whipping out overblown sonnets during philosophy class. Screenplays? Check. Three unproduced masterworks waiting for discovery. Comic books? Check. I was a comic book retailer before heading back to academia, always toying around with my own character.

Now, finally, in the middle of figuring out the genitive plural for rex (regis), I thought: I want to be a writer. Not a professor. And I want to use this ridiculously expensive education and master’s degree in classics to write about Rome. But I want to humanize it. Make it live. And the answer I came up with was noir.

Roman noir. Pun intended, if you’re French or a literary critic.

I checked my temperature that night, and I didn’t have a fever. And while time has been condensed, and details have been changed to protect dead languages—that’s how my book and my new genre were born.

I’ve always loved noir. Wrote my first one when I was in third grade (a play, we staged it, I died at the end in a shoot-out). Hadn’t really written much noir since, unless you count term papers. But I got lucky. Three years later, here’s Nox Dormienda, the first book of the Arcturus series, and first Roman (and I do mean Roman) noir.

The title is from a line of poetry by Catullus, a first-century-AD poet who still gets censored and yanked from libraries for obscenity, and means a night you don’t wake up from.

Shakespeare adapted the concept in Hamlet ("to sleep, perchance to dream"), and of course Raymond Chandler, also a classicist, borrowed it for The Big Sleep. Nox Dormienda is my Roman noir homage to Chandler, the master.

So how do Rome and noir work together? Like Maltese and Falcon.

One of my biggest influences is film noir, and every year I pay homage at Noir City, San Francisco’s famed noir festival. Eddie Muller, the founder of the Film Noir Foundation, deserves Noir Sainthood. And in one of his books, Eddie mentions Rome as the first “Noir City.” The Eternal Noir City.

stanley_noxdormiendaCue the lightning strike.

Roman culture dominated western civilization for more than 500 years. There was enough corruption, desperation, obsession, and sweaty sex in that 500 years to keep a small city of writers pounding out Roman noir for the next century. Right now it’s just me.

Granted, the Romans didn’t drink bourbon, they didn’t smoke Camels. So as a writer, I tried to distill the essence of noir into a style and a mood and an attitude that could fit just as easily in first-century-AD Roman Britain as it would in 1938 Los Angeles.

I like a challenge. And hey, it’s my first novel—I didn’t know any better! Ken Bruen described it as “Ellis Peters rewritten by Elmore Leonard,” and right now that’s what I want on my tombstone.

Hopefully, Nox Dormienda’s mix of affectionate tribute, down and dirty description, ribald humor, and thriller pace will bring enough people on board the chariot to demand the second book: the title is Maledictus (Cursed). My current project trades the mule cart for a ’38 Packard (the novel is set in 1940 San Francisco). I like the modern world, too, as long as it’s 70 years old.

So that’s Nox Dormienda, my first novel, first of a series, first of a genre. You can find out more—and listen to excerpts—at my website. I truly hope you like it. Because when it comes to noir, you know what they say…there’s no place like Rome.

Nox Dormienda, Kelli Stanley, Five Star, July 2008, $25.95

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

Teri Duerr
Monday, 13 February 2012 07:02

Kelli Stanley Paints Rome Black

My Book: Don’t Drink, Go to Meetings, Investigate a Murder
Elizabeth Zelvin

zelvin_elizabeth_smallElizabeth Zelvin


Matt Scudder has been sober 20 years, but his best friend is a career criminal he hangs out with in a bar. Dave Robichaux gets depressed. JP Beaumont, alone on a Saturday night in a strange town, would rather have dinner with a victim’s sister than go to an AA meeting. In Death Will Get You Sober, protagonist Bruce Kohler has a different experience. When he wakes up in detox on the Bowery on Christmas Day, his biggest fear is dying of boredom if he stays sober. Instead, he’s catapulted not only into a murder investigation but into the world of 12-step programs in New York. Not drinking is just the beginning.

If you get your sociology from Cheers, you may think that alcoholics are convivial. Sure, when they’re drinking, they can be the life of the party. But take the booze away, and many of them find it hard to deal with other people. Few alcoholics entering sobriety are delighted to hear it’s a good idea to join a group, whether it’s therapy or AA. My guy Bruce has become what AA calls a terminal loner. But it wasn’t always that way.

It’s been said that the kernel of every story is a “what if.” That’s true of Death Will Get You Sober. While I always intended to write a mystery, I started with the title and a “what if” that had nothing to do with the murder. What if two eight-year-old boys became best friends? What if they turned to alcohol in their teens, became drinking buddies and eventually alcoholics? And then what if one of them got sober and the other didn’t? What would happen to their friendship? And then what if, 15 years later, the other guy got sober? Could the friendship be revived?

zelvin_deathwillgetyousoberThat’s Bruce and his best friend Jimmy’s backstory. To liven it up, I added Jimmy’s girlfriend Barbara to the mix. Barbara is the world’s most codependent addictions counselor. She’s always ready to help and mind everybody’s business, especially Bruce and Jimmy’s. If it takes investigating a murder to keep Bruce off the bottle, she’s all for it. And if the healing of the rift takes a little encouragement—well, that’s what she lives for. Fifteen years in Al-Anon and therapy have not quite cured Barbara of her desire to meddle, an excellent quality in a sidekick amateur sleuth.

Barbara can say out loud what Bruce and Jimmy never will: that these two guys love each other. And that brings us back to the murder. The victim is Bruce’s detox buddy, a déclassé Park Avenue aristocrat with a trust fund and an unfortunate nasty streak. One of the perennial challenges to writers of amateur-sleuth mysteries is that, unlike cops and PIs, amateurs need a good reason to investigate. When Bruce wakes up in detox, he hasn’t cared about anything or anyone for years. He has what recovery pros call “frozen feelings.” Barbara and Jimmy will do a lot to help him thaw. But Bruce also cares more than he expected to about Godfrey, aka Guff. (He prefers to be called God—“Hi, I’m God, I’m an alcoholic”—but that’s not going to happen in Sister Angel’s detox.) Who cares if a homeless chronic drunk dies, even one with a Pierre Cardin bathrobe that he didn’t get at the Salvation Army? Bruce does. And Death Will Get You Sober is about how he and his friends figure out whodunit.

Death Will Get You Sober, Elizabeth Zelvin, Thomas Dunne Books, April, $23.95

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

Teri Duerr
Monday, 13 February 2012 07:02

Elizabeth Zelvin

My Book: Me & Youtube
Jane K. Cleland

cleland_janek_smallJane K. Cleland Takes Her Trailer to the Beach


“It’s not just the written word,” Kat Green, the director of my first-ever book trailer, said, “it’s also the pauses—silence adds impact. And don’t forget the visuals.”

I knew what I wanted in the Antiques to Die For trailer. In my mind, I see a small blonde 12-year-old girl standing on a deserted beach near a stone jetty. The girl’s name is Paige. The day is cloudy. She stares out over the ocean. You can tell from the way she stands that it’s cold and she’s sad. The voiceover describes the emotions fueling the book’s plot.

Kat tells me that our first three tasks are to prepare the script, identify a viable location, select the actress who’ll play Paige.

I wrote the script.

Script—check.

Kat and I live in New York City, and for budget purposes, I wanted to film here. We needed a New York City beach with a stone jetty. We needed clear sight lines and isolation. Kat called the Parks Department.

Those Parks fellas sure know their beaches. In the Far Rockaway section of Queens, there’s a long, empty beach with wild grass and rough sand. And a stone jetty. And open ocean views. You’d think you were standing at the shore in Rocky Point, New Hampshire. Really. Rocky Point is a fictional town, but if you want to know what the Rocky Point jetty looks like, check out this photo.

The beach was an ideal choice—it’s beautiful and craggy and mysterious looking, and it’s way closer than New Hampshire. Kat struck gold on this one.

Location—check.

When Kat told me she’d placed an ad for 12-year-old blonde girls, I expressed a concern. “Will their parents allow them to work with us? I mean, we’re not Disney. We’re Jane and Kat.”

I needn’t have worried. Lots of parents were willing to let their daughters go with us to a deserted beach on a dreary winter day, take hours of video, edit the film as we saw fit, and post the finished trailer on the web. Can you imagine?

One girl’s application said she was 10 but could play 12. Another girl wrote that she was 16 but could play 12. One mother offered to fly her daughter up from Georgia.

We auditioned three candidates, all from the New York City suburbs, and all cute and pleasant. We met them at a Starbucks near Grand Central.

cleland_antiquestodieforBecause I want readers to be able to decide what Paige looks like for themselves, the actress’ face doesn’t show on camera. During the audition, I asked each girl to walk away from us so I could see her back view. One vamped it. The next one was stiff. We hired the third.

Her name is Shannon. She was the right size. Her hair was the right length. Her parents were appropriately interested in the project. And she seemed sweet, as if she’d be easy to work with. She’s perfect except that her hair wasn’t quite blonde enough.

“No problem,” Kat assured me, “we’ll spray it.”

“With paint?” I asked, appalled.

“Sort of like paint. We do it all the time.”

“Does it wash out?”

“Yes.”

I didn’t ask for details.

Actress—check.

The voice-over runs about 40 seconds. I was conscious of the rhythm of the words—which ones I intended should be spoken with urgency and where it was best to pause, allowing silence to communicate a message words could not convey.

Kat tells me that preparation is the secret to success whether you’re filming a full-length feature movie or a 40-second book trailer. Once the script is written, your style identified, the actors hired, the setting selected, and the shots delineated, then you wait for a cloudy day.

Check.

Antiques to Die For, Jane K. Cleland, St. Martin’s Minotaur, April, $23.99. The book trailer can be viewed here.

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

Teri Duerr
Monday, 13 February 2012 10:02

Jane K. Cleland Takes Her Trailer to the Beach

My Book: Evil’s True Face
C.J. Lyons

lyons_cj_smallC.J. Lyons Takes Off Her Gloves

Photo: Carolyn Males


Have you ever come face to face with evil? I have.

I practiced pediatric emergency medicine and pediatrics for 17 years. During that time, I faced rapists, child abusers, gangbangers who would kill over a pair of shoes, and even a serial killer.

You know the scary thing about evil? It looks just like you and me.

When I left medicine to fulfill my life-long dream of becoming an author, I knew that I wanted to explore the various faces of evil. After seeing it in real life, I knew how different the perpetrators were from most of the “bad guys” portrayed in fiction.

Real-life bad guys don’t spend their days plotting dastardly deeds of cunning or intricate, diabolical plots involving red herrings and webs of intrigue.

Rather, they’re driven by one simple desire: they know what they want, they want it now, and they don’t care what they have to do to get it.

The boyfriend baby-sitting while mom’s at work who brutally beat and raped a three-year-old because she wouldn’t go to bed when he told her the first time. He’s currently on death row. The woman who shook her baby so hard the baby hemorrhaged into his brain…because the baby wouldn’t stop crying during her favorite TV show. The gangbanger who shot a kid because he said “hi” to the wrong girl on the wrong street corner while wearing the wrong color of hat.

These are just a few of the faces of evil I’ve seen. Is it any wonder that in my debut medical suspense novel, Lifelines, I chose to focus on what makes evil so compelling to so many readers: the fact that it hides among us, so very hard to see, hiding in plain sight.

lyons_lifelinesI also explored what we all have in common with evil. We are all driven by the same universal needs and wants: love, security, recognition. Some of us evolve to higher levels, seeking more altruistic desires such as justice and truth.

The “good guys” in Lifelines were much easier to write than the bad guys. Berkley had asked me to create a new medical suspense series told solely from the point of view of the women who worked in an urban trauma center.

These women face life and death every day. They each have secrets they need to protect. And they each have their own reasons for doing what they think is right. Of course, the big question is: How far are they willing to go to protect their secrets, to do what they think is the right thing?

And it all starts on the most dangerous day of the year.

For those of us in the US, the most dangerous day of the year is July 1st. This is the day the new interns come to work in teaching hospitals, the ink on their diplomas still wet. Every medical professional knows that you don’t want to be in a hospital during that first week of July. Patients are lost that week.

Which is exactly where Lifelines begins.

A new doctor at Pittsburgh’s Angels of Mercy’s ER loses the “wrong” patient—and she has no idea why he died. Her fight to discover what was behind his death brings her face to face with evil.

Will she recognize it before it’s too late?

And how far will she go to stop it?

In real life, there was frustratingly little I could do when faced with evil. I could care for the victims, help the police and prosecutors to the best of my ability, but it always felt as if there should be a way to stop the senseless deaths and violence.

As rewarding as my medical career has been, I’m finding that my new career as an author has its own rewards. Especially when it gives me the chance to not only put a face to evil but to give its victims the justice they deserve.

Lifelines, C.J. Lyons, Berkley, March 2008, $7.99

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

Teri Duerr
Monday, 13 February 2012 11:02

C.J. Lyons Takes Off Her Gloves

My Book: Mr. Mom Comes of Age
Michael Sherer

sherer_michael_smallMichael Sherer


Twenty-five years ago, I laughed uproariously at Michael Keaton as Mr. Mom, who wrestled with role reversal when he lost his job and his wife went back to work. Keaton was challenged by a runaway vacuum cleaner named Jaws, a washing machine that spewed suds when he added too much detergent, and a baby he fed chili.

I got in touch with my feminine side long before doing so became fashionable. Part of it was a conscious decision to play a part in my children’s lives—in the delivery room I cut all three of my children’s umbilical cords as they entered the world. Part of it was sheer necessity—my first wife was a flight attendant, so I was literally a single parent three to four days a week.

I became chief cook and bottle washer. I was bath giver, bedtime story reader, homework helper, coach, playmate and mentor. I took 2 a.m. feedings. I did laundry, separating darks from lights and using the right amount of detergent. (I shrunk a few garments—no one’s perfect.) I vacuumed and dusted. I changed about 7,000 diapers over nine years and three kids, and once suffered the indignities of changing a diaper in an airplane lavatory during an overseas flight, in turbulence. That one took nearly a whole box of baby wipes to clean up.

Through it all I tried to keep a sense of humor. After all, it’s hard not to laugh when you view it in perspective. And I wasn’t exactly Mr. Mom. I still worked, though I gave up a nine-to-five career after the birth of my second child and freelanced from home.

At some point, I realized there was a story in there somewhere. As usual, it began with a question: in this case, “how do you live without someone after 20 years?” When my kids were young, I was a single parent only half the time. I wondered what it what it would be like to face those challenges full-time.

sherer_islandlifeFast-forward to the recent past. When I finally felt ready to take a break from my Emerson Ward mystery series and write Island Life, a standalone suspense novel, a lot had changed. An estimated 143,000 married men played Mr. Mom in 2006, according to the US Census Bureau, staying home to take care of kids while their wives worked. And there are now an astounding 2.3 million single fathers in the US, up from about 400,000 in 1970.

At the same time, little has changed, really, since Michael Keaton played a domestic bumbler for our amusement. Men—husbands and fathers in particular, single or not—are portrayed in the media as clueless at best, and chauvinistic, domestically inept boors at worst. Think of top situation comedies on television recently: Everybody Loves Raymond, According to Jim, The George Lopez Show, Two and a Half Men. Their plot summaries are practically interchangeable.

In ads for everything from Verizon cell phones to laundry detergent, men are seen as buffoons, so cartoonishly unsophisticated one wonders how they tie their shoes in the morning. And groups across the country are warning the general public to consider any single adult male in the company of a child a pedophile, making it difficult for men, especially single dads, to forge the affectionate bonds with their children that for years experts have been telling us are imperative to their well-being.

Mr. Mom was and is an entertaining film, meant to make us laugh and reconsider our gender roles. But we’re all grown up now, and the joke’s over. I hope Island Life entertains readers just as Mr. Mom entertained moviegoers. But I also hope readers get a glimpse of some of the struggles single fathers face every day.

Island Life, Michael Sherer, Five Star, March 2008, $25.95

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 04:02

Michael Sherer

My Book: Punching Through Prejudice
Pari Noskin Taichert

taichert_pari_portrait_smallPari Noskin Taichert

Photo: Cary Herz

A name like mine conjures images of an exotic woman with deep, dark eyes and skin the color of burnt sugar. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the surprise on people’s faces after they see how ordinary I look, the slight frowns and mental adjustments before hands are extended in greeting.

The copious mispronunciations and odd assumptions never concerned me much until one clear, sunny Albuquerque afternoon about two weeks after the US entered the war in Iraq. I remember walking to the mailbox that spring day. The new green of budding leaves gave me a sense of optimism. The scent of daffodils filled the air. At first, the postcard from a telecommunications company in McLean, Virginia, seemed like any other direct-mail advertising come-on.

Then I read the offer: discounted cell phone minutes to Iran. What? Why? I didn’t have any connections to Iran. None—except for my first name.

What kind of company had the data mining power for a national search based on Iranian first names? This would be like offering samples of Guinness to people named “Ian.” It seemed at best an incredibly inefficient marketing technique. At worst it hinted at intelligence phishing.

Either way, the card gave me the creeps. After showing it to my husband, who reacted the same way, I shredded it. Yet the questions persisted. Was this ethnic profiling? Was it an innocent, but fascinatingly targeted sales campaign? Was the FBI or NSA involved?

Thank goodness for fiction.

My new book, The Socorro Blast, is my response to that little mailer. The postcard was just the seed; the mature plant looks very different. Socorro explores how we react to terrorism and uncertainty in our own small ways. It delves into all the little judgments we make about each other every day, whether they’re innocuous or harmful.

In the book, Sasha Solomon, my protagonist, has a devout Jewish sister married to an Iranian immigrant. He’s a naturalized US citizen, but he’s also a chemist with a specialty in explosives technology. His youngest daughter, Gabi, has followed in his footsteps. She’s a grad student at New Mexico Tech, an internationally respected school, located in Socorro.

taichert_socorroblastImagine all the possibilities for misunderstanding. There are plenty of cultural, religious, and ethnic opportunities for friction in this very real scenario. Small-town America is simply a microcosm of what’s happening on a national scale.

You might think that a mystery novel that examines topics like hate crimes and bigotry would be one of those bang-you-over-the-head reads. Socorro isn’t. It can’t be: Sasha could never agree to be in a book that wasn’t fun.

And that brings me to my second point: There’s an upside to exploring personal and societal prejudice. Sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised. (It’s happened to me; one of my closest friends exploded all of my unspoken stereotypes about cheerleaders.)

And, merely by being who I am, I’ve had the chance to smash other people’s assumptions as well.

One of the perverse pleasures I get from my study of tae kwon do is the moment when a new person sees me in action for the first time. Before entering the dojang, I’m just a nice older lady who laughs a lot. When we bow in, I become fierce and focused.

A few months ago, a young man came to observe our class. His nose had been broken a couple of times. He had a scruffy half-beard, shifty eyes, ill-fitting clothes—and smelled of too much tobacco and not enough soap. My radar told me he had the potential to be dangerous. If I’d seen him on the sidewalk, I would have crossed the street.

That night, we were doing “forms.” These are like dance pieces, with a powerful martial-arts edge. They’re my favorite activity.

After class, I grabbed my bag and started to leave when the man called out to me, “Hey, ma’am! Ma’am!”

taichert_pariOh no. What could he want? “Yes?”

He looked down at his feet for a full minute. “I just wanted to say that you scare the crap out of me.” He then rushed to hold the door open for me, an obvious sign of respect. I nodded a thank you, my face serious, and went to the car.

Once my back was to him, in the cold and velvety darkness, I grinned like the devil himself.

The author demonstrates her tae kwon do skills.

Prejudice can be debilitating and dangerous. Sometimes, though, it can spur us to take positive action, to thrust its poison out of our own lives.

This is the greatest lesson I’ve learned in writing The Socorro Blast.

The Socorro Blast, Pari Noskin Taichert, University of New Mexico Press, January 2008, $24.95

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 04:02

Pari Noskin Taichert

My Book: Fiction Imitates Life
Karen Harper

harper_karenKaren Harper


The heroine of my latest contemporary suspense novel, Below the Surface, owns a marine search and salvage company for which she scuba dives. She finds out that more is going on than she thinks when she surfaces from a dive and finds that her diving buddy/twin sister is missing, and their dive boat is gone. After writing the book, I too found there was more going on “below the surface” than I’d expected.

I have lived in southwest Florida each winter for 23 years, so I’ve seen a lot of changes, many ecological. The hook for this book is the “green” topic of the pollution of the once pristine Gulf of Mexico. My heroine is photographing one of the underwater sea grass meadows, which are bellwethers for the health of the gulf. I was amazed to see fiction imitate life when I read a newspaper article with the headline, “Dying Sea Grass has City Council’s Attention” (Naples Daily News). I had read about such projects in other areas, but here we were facing an endangerment issue right where I had set the book, as opposed to the well-known issue on the east coast of Florida where the coral reefs are dying.

While writing the book I also noted that one of the new TV series this autumn was called Cane and centered around a powerful sugar-growing dynasty in Florida. Cane growers are often blamed for polluting the Everglades and Florida waters, but there are more possible culprits than that. And when big money and politics get involved, the possibilities for who killed my heroine’s twin sister become numerous and doubly dangerous. Could the murderer have intended to murder my heroine?

harper_belowthesurfaceThe other fascinating topic I did not quite see coming when I began the book was the question of how birth order in our families affects all of us. Time magazine did an October 29 cover story on “The Secrets of Birth Order.” All of us are affected by this, even only children.

And what is it like to have a twin? Is it possible that the older sister of twins could be resentful enough about being shut out of the twins’ world and all the attention they’ve received over the years that she might kill her own sister? Current studies on birth order suggest that whatever we are—first borns, the “black sheep” middle kid, or the younger ones—we are greatly affected by our place in our family.

Publisher’s Weekly said of my previous suspense novel Inferno, “Harper keeps tension high…” This time, I found that these two hot-button issues are keeping the interest level high for my book. I’ve had several book clubs already decide to take the plunge, “below the surface,” because of these debatable and relatable issues that affect us all.

Below the Surface, Karen Harper, Mira Books, January 2008, $6.99

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 04:02

Karen Harper

My Book: Writing Versus Reporting
Betty Webb

webb_betty_desert_smallBetty Webb

Webb in the Arizona desert where the Apache Wars raged in the 1880s.


The problem with being a reporter is that you can’t stop reporting. Even when you’re writing mysteries.

As a career journalist, I’ve covered the Super Bowl, murder, and polygamy. I’ve interviewed everyone including US presidents, Nobel Prize winners, astronauts who walked on the moon, ranting racists, battered women, the hopeful, and the hopeless. Battered women made their way into my first Lena Jones mystery, Desert Noir; polygamy into Desert Wives; racists into Desert Shadows; the hopeful into Desert Run; and the hopeless into my new book, Desert Cut.

But if I tell you exactly what the hopeless are so hopeless about in Desert Cut, my editor at Poisoned Pen Press says she’ll have to kill me. Knowing Barbara Peters, I’m pretty sure she means it. Barbara’s tough. Tough enough to publish Desert Cut, despite being well aware of the big mess of trouble the book might cause for her, for me, and possibly Poisoned Pen Press itself. She knows that as a journalist, I just can’t help reporting on real-life trouble, even when reporting gets dangerous. Desert Wives elicited death threats from polygamists, and Desert Shadows brought a few grammar-challenged letters from Aryan Brotherhood types residing in Arizona State Prison.

Everyone wants to kill the messenger.

Mystery writer James Sallis, author of the wonderful Drive, once said, “Sometimes you write the mystery just so you can explore the other stuff.” And this is borne out when you look at many contemporary mysteries.

J.A. Jance’s Partner in Crime revealed the dangerous practice of inserting poisonous sodium azide into automobile air bags. Most of James Lee Burke’s books focus on social issues, especially The Tin Roof Blowdown, which accused the federal government of snail-like response to Hurricane Katrina. Sue Grafton’s Q Is for Quarry actually reopened the case of a real-life Jane Doe found murdered in Santa Barbara County in 1969. And Pete Hautman’s National Book Award–winning Godless warned young adults about the looming dangers of cults.

webb_desertcutFocusing on social issues that need attention can happen even more frequently when the mystery writer is a reporter by profession. The very act of reporting often leads to the uncovering of big, dirty secrets, some deemed too distasteful to report—even in the nation’s newspapers.

So thank God for fiction and the mystery novel. After all, mystery novels and their protagonists revel in uncovering big, dirty secrets. And the dirtier, the better.

Readers of the Lena Jones series know that she revels in ripping away cloaks of secrecy, especially when those cloaks are used to hide sins committed against the helpless. Lena knows what it’s like to suffer. Found at the age of four on an Arizona street with a bullet in her head, she almost died but instead lived to endure an increasingly abusive string of foster homes. A scarred survivor, Lena continues to search for her birth parents while doing what she can to help the helpless.

Lena’s latest case is no different.

In Desert Cut, while horseback riding near the town of Los Perdidos, Lena finds the mutilated body of a young girl and the gruesome manner of the child’s death evokes memories of her own rough childhood. Los Perdidos turns out to be a small town hiding a big, dirty secret. Founded by the descendants of pioneers who fought Geronimo, the town’s population now includes a high number of documented foreign-born residents working at a chemical plant, as well as an influx of illegal immigrants. The town’s still-vivid memory of Geronimo’s war mixes with its modern immigration battles, and the cruelty of an ancient practice is tempered by a growing underground railroad fighting to save its young victims. The looming fate of those young victims—based on contemporary medical and court reports about this still-practiced procedure—is nothing short of horrific.

I admit that the Lena Jones mysteries exist so I can write “the other stuff.” Wounded protagonist? Of course. Multiple suspects with multiple motives? In abundance. Unusual setting? You bet.

Yes, all the criteria for the basic mystery novel are present in my books, but it’s the reporting that makes me write.

Even when the big, dirty secrets I report on stir up a whole mess of trouble.

Desert Cut, Betty Webb, Poisoned Pen Press, February 2008, $24.95

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 05:02

Betty Webb

Winter, Issue #123 Contents
Mystery Scene

123cover_250

Features

Catch Her: Lisa Gardner

Intensive research underpins each of Gardner’s first-rate thrillers, including her latest, Catch Me.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Nicola Upson & The Mysteries of Josephine Tey

Stymied in her research for a biography, Upson instead deployed enigmatic Golden Age writer Tey as the detective in a mystery series.
by Lynn Kaczmarek

Simon Brett and The Modern Whodunit

Brett’s career is a showcase of the classic, pure whodunit.
by Jon L. Breen

The Closer

This criminally underappreciated police procedural is questioning the moral assumptions of an entire TV genre.
by June Thomas

The Celebrated Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s world-famous sleuth shows no signs of age.
by Art Taylor

Building Your Book Collection: Association Copies

Value can skyrocket when a book has a story above and beyond what’s contained in its pages.
by Nate Pedersen

My Evening with Sherlock

A clever researcher has revealed the author of the oldest known Sherlock Holmes pastiche as none other than Peter Pan’s creator.
by J.M. Barrie

The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III

How critiquing bad books made for a good education. Plus, the true story of the worst story ever.
by Lawrence Block

Author Anagrams, Part II

by Teri Duerr

Kiss Me, Kill Me Mystery Crossword

by Verna Suit

Departments

At the Scene

by Kate Stine

Mystery Miscellany

by Louis Phillips

Hints & Allegations

Nominations for Edgar Awards and Dilys Award, Martha Grimes named MWA Grand Master

The Hook

First Lines That Caught Our Attention

New Books

The Expats
by Chris Pavone

John Wayne Rides Again
by Betty Webb

A Toast to Robert Mitchum
by Dick Lochte

Gormania

Richard Neely, dissing Billy Wilder, Graham Greene and the nuns, Robert Bloch.
by Ed Gorman


Reviews

Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents

by Betty Webb

Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered

by Bill Crider

Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed

by Lynne Maxwell

What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed

by Jon L. Breen

Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed

by Dick Lochte

Mystery Scene Reviews

Miscellaneous


The Docket

Letters

Our Readers Recommend

Advertising Info

Advertiser Index

Admin
Monday, 05 April 2010 10:04

123cover_250

Features

Catch Her: Lisa Gardner

Intensive research underpins each of Gardner’s first-rate thrillers, including her latest, Catch Me.
by Oline H. Cogdill

Nicola Upson & The Mysteries of Josephine Tey

Stymied in her research for a biography, Upson instead deployed enigmatic Golden Age writer Tey as the detective in a mystery series.
by Lynn Kaczmarek

Simon Brett and The Modern Whodunit

Brett’s career is a showcase of the classic, pure whodunit.
by Jon L. Breen

The Closer

This criminally underappreciated police procedural is questioning the moral assumptions of an entire TV genre.
by June Thomas

The Celebrated Hercule Poirot

Agatha Christie’s world-famous sleuth shows no signs of age.
by Art Taylor

Building Your Book Collection: Association Copies

Value can skyrocket when a book has a story above and beyond what’s contained in its pages.
by Nate Pedersen

My Evening with Sherlock

A clever researcher has revealed the author of the oldest known Sherlock Holmes pastiche as none other than Peter Pan’s creator.
by J.M. Barrie

The Murders in Memory Lane: Those Scott Meredith Days, Part III

How critiquing bad books made for a good education. Plus, the true story of the worst story ever.
by Lawrence Block

Author Anagrams, Part II

by Teri Duerr

Kiss Me, Kill Me Mystery Crossword

by Verna Suit

Departments

At the Scene

by Kate Stine

Mystery Miscellany

by Louis Phillips

Hints & Allegations

Nominations for Edgar Awards and Dilys Award, Martha Grimes named MWA Grand Master

The Hook

First Lines That Caught Our Attention

New Books

The Expats
by Chris Pavone

John Wayne Rides Again
by Betty Webb

A Toast to Robert Mitchum
by Dick Lochte

Gormania

Richard Neely, dissing Billy Wilder, Graham Greene and the nuns, Robert Bloch.
by Ed Gorman


Reviews

Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents

by Betty Webb

Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered

by Bill Crider

Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed

by Lynne Maxwell

What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed

by Jon L. Breen

Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed

by Dick Lochte

Mystery Scene Reviews

Miscellaneous


The Docket

Letters

Our Readers Recommend

Advertising Info

Advertiser Index

At the Scene, Spring Issue #124
Kate Stine

124cover_250Hi everyone!

Thomas Perry believes that the chase story has a primal fascination for humans. “It’s simply hard-wired into all our brains,” he says. “We recognize it, we think about it, we even dream about it. When some vari- ant of this story is told properly, we are immediately interested, and we are very receptive to each trick the runner uses, each tactic, each event in the story.”

No one rings the changes on this theme with more skill, imagination, and narrative daring than Perry in his Jane Whitefield novels. If you haven’t already, go on the lam with Jane—it’s aerobic reading. Elizabeth Hand’s two Cass Neary novels about a perpetually stoned, self-destructive, kind of despicable but kind of charismatic, burned-out former punk have got a lot of people talking. I’m a big fan and so is Art Taylor who has contributed an essay in this issue. Paul Doiron has a fascinating conversation with Hand in which she cites Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source as an influence. I can see that, she’s that good.

At the other end of the crime fiction spectrum are the charmingly whimsical Homer Kelly mysteries by Jane Langton. As the author says in her interview with Brian Skupin, her interests became those of her Harvard professor/sleuth, including Transcendentalism, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, and much more. The new ebook editions of her mysteries contain the delightful pen-and-ink drawings that recent reprints have failed to include.

Another character who went through life with zest is writer Anthony Shaffer. In this issue, Joseph Goodrich takes stock of the playwright’s various accomplishments, including: the wildly successful play, Sleuth, which has been filmed twice; various novels, including two mysteries with his twin brother Peter Shaffer of Amadeus and Equus fame; many screen adaptations (Death on the Nile, Frenzy, etc.) and what seems to have been a vastly entertain- ing social life. (Don’t miss his account of dinner with Agatha Christie on page 40.)

Martin Edwards has fond memories of his friend and mentor Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. As Edwards so rightly notes, Hill, who died earlier this year, was a towering figure on the British crime scene for the past half century. There’s lots more in this issue, we hope you enjoy it!

Kate Stine
Editor-in-chief

Teri Duerr
Friday, 04 March 2011 11:03

A talk with Thomas Perry, remembering Reginald Hill, authors John Buchan and Jane Langton, and more.

My Book: Mummified Baby Identified
Rosemary Harris

harris_rosemaryRosemary Harris


Those three words got me here. Lots of readers and mystery fans want to know where writers get their ideas; it’s a question I’ve heard asked at every conference I’ve ever attended and the answers range from the smart-alecky (“Wal-Mart, aisle three”) to the earnest (“My whole life prepared me to write this book”). In my case, the answer is simple—The New York Times.

The Metro Briefings section in The New York Times is a catch-all, snippets of news from around the tri-state area: New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Nascent scandals, missing persons, local crimes—stories just sneaking into the radar of the Times find their way to Metro Briefings. Sometimes the section’s good for a laugh, like the day I learned that someone was stealing shrubs in the suburbs. That’s in a folder for future use.

This particular day’s Metro Briefings was good for more than a few laughs. “Mummified Baby Identified.” How had I missed “Mummified Baby Found”? Perhaps I’d been pouring over garden catalogs—the way we gardeners do in January or February when it’s too cold to do anything outside except fill the birdfeeders.

The two-line feature stated that the baby, found in a small Connecticut town, was “most probably” the child of one of two elderly spinsters, long-time residents, recently deceased. Insurance investigators, in the course of going through the women’s possessions, had found the body under a stack of newspapers.

I’m convinced that if this tiny story had appeared in mid-June instead of mid-winter, I wouldn’t be writing this article. I probably would have yelled to my husband, “Hey, listen to this!” and moved on. But it was the dead of winter. My favorite basketball team was once again embarrassing themselves on the court and my favorite baseball team wasn’t even close to spring training. I had time.

I dug into the archives of the local newspaper in the town where the baby was found and discovered that the sweet little old lady who may have been the child’s mother had also achieved some notoriety 30 years earlier, for allegedly trying to hire a hit man to kill the wife of a man with whom she’d been obsessed. This was getting good.

harris_pushingupdaisiesThat same day I had a telephone interview with one of the doctors who had assisted in the baby’s autopsy and learned the mummified baby hadn’t been definitively identified; the medical examiner simply decided that with the two likeliest candidates for mother dead and buried, and the baby having apparently died of natural causes, there was little point in going through the expense of exhuming the women’s bodies and conducting DNA testing. Case closed. Or rather, no case. So the Times article was not exactly accurate.

I was fascinated. And hooked. First, by this intriguing story delivered into my lap with the morning paper, and then by the fact that it was so easy to get information. (The doctor I spoke with also gave me an unusual fact about the baby’s interment which I turned into a clue for my amateur sleuth.)

Anxious to get back into the garden, one way or another, I created Paula Holliday, a transplanted city girl who moves to the suburbs to start a gardening business and finds herself digging up more than just the petunias the first day of her biggest job. Pushing Up Daisies is my version of the mummified baby story. Not what did happen, but what might have happened.

So, my advice to anyone looking for a good idea for his or her next story? Go buy a newspaper.

Pushing Up Daisies, Rosemary Harris, St Martin’s Minotaur, February 2008

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 05:02

Rosemary Harris

My Book: Going for a Ride With the Mafia
Jack Getze

 

getze_jackJack Getze Meets the Parents

 

The gangster’s black limousine pulled to the curb in front of my father-in-law’s contracting office. Three very large men came inside and made my wife’s father go for a ride.

I didn’t see this happen. I just read about it on the front page of the newspaper. On the same day I met him.

In August of 1979, I traveled back to New Jersey from my home in Los Angeles to meet my future in-laws and attend the wedding of my wife’s brother. The last thing I expected was for my new family to provide the spark for my second Austin Carr novel, Big Money.

But my new novel—about a small New Jersey businessman hustled by the mob—practically got dumped in my lap at the breakfast table that day 28 years ago. My fiancée and I had arrived from California very late the night before, and the first time I met my future father-in-law was over bacon and eggs the next morning.

He said, "Hello, how are you?" and we shook hands. But my wife’s father seemed preoccupied with the newspaper that day, and not long after finishing his breakfast, he rose from the table and went to play golf.

That’s when I saw his name on the front page and read about his encounter with local mobsters.

Incredibly, much of the conversation inside that black limousine was tape recorded. It seems the driver had already been turned into a witness by federal prosecutors and was wearing a wire. An investigation of the gang had been underway for years, and the mobster who hired the guys in the limo was on trial. At the previous day’s court session, guess who’d been a star witness?

That’s right. My father-in-law.

getze_bignumbersBefore calling him to testify, the prosecutor played hours of tape recordings, including much of the conversation between my father-in-law and the gangsters in that limo. One of the gangsters asked my father-in-law for a regular monthly payment, a fee for protection. My father-in-law said no. The men cursed and said they’d kill him. My father-in-law said go ahead. The men cursed even more and said they’d kill his wife and children. My father-in-law said go ahead, and something like, “They hate me anyway.”

I remember the newspaper quotes were full of blank spots where four-letter words fit well. And frankly, my father-in-law sounded tougher than the mobsters who were trying to muscle him. At one point, a juror raised his hand and asked, “Which one is the bad guy?”

That’s exactly what I decided I wanted in my novel—a character who was as tough or tougher than the gangsters trying to muscle him. And while the first version included a protagonist who qualified—a former Navy SEAL who took no guff—my latest version was written for a much milder character, stockbroker Austin Carr. I managed to keep that limo ride, however.

And in real life? Despite his rage at being hustled by gangsters, the threats made against himself and his family, he refused to identify the men who had taken him for a ride that day.

On the witness stand, he said, “I can’t be sure.”

My father-in-law was tough, not stupid.

Big Numbers, Jack Getze, Hilliard and Harris, March 2008, $28.95

 

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

Teri Duerr
Tuesday, 14 February 2012 05:02

Jack Getze Meets the Parents

Defending Jacob
Jon L. Breen

Before a grand jury in Newton, Massachusetts, former Assistant District Attorney Andy Barber is being interrogated by his erstwhile protégé Neal Logiudice. The reader gradually learns that the subject is the stabbing murder of a 14-year-old schoolboy, Ben Rifkin. Barber initially led the investigation although his son Jacob was a classmate of the victim and would eventually become the principal suspect.

Quotes from the grand jury testimony recur throughout the book, and Barber’s first-person narrative fills in the details of the investigation, his son’s trial, its aftermath, and the effect of the traumatic events on his family. His wife Laurie, a natural leader and neighborhood confidante, begins to buckle under the strain, especially when she learns of a secret Andy had kept from her: a family history of violence, including a long-unseen father serving a prison sentence for murder. The existence of a “murder gene” becomes a major issue of the book. Jacob is an outsider with few friends, who is often uncommunicative but generally polite and cooperative. Is he so different from any early adolescent? Though both parents insist their son is innocent, doubts creep in. A defense psychiatrist’s findings are held in reserve just in case.

Himself a former Middlesex County ADA, William Landay handles the courtroom action and other legal maneuvering superbly, but the painfully believable relationships of the three family members set this novel apart. The author is a master of plot construction as well as character insight: the series of surprises that resolve the story are both unpredictable and believable, including just enough ambiguity to resemble real life.

This novel has been heavily hyped with comparisons to courtroom classics like Presumed Innocent, Anatomy of a Murder, and To Kill a Mockingbird. For once the hype is justified. Those of us who missed Landay’s two previous crime novels will want to seek them out.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 15 February 2012 03:02

landay_defendingjacobWhen a young boy is stabbed to death and another stands accused, his former DA father steps in to defend his son in this thoughtful book about family, community, and justice in a small Massachusetts town.

All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Kevin Burton Smith

There’s a bruising psychological and philosophical claustrophobia in Mosley’s Leonid McGill’s stories that makes them the polar opposite of a comfort read. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. McGill, currently the proprietor of a small private detective agency in New York City, is no saint. He used to work as a “fixer” for some not-very-nice people, specializing in framing people for crimes they didn’t commit. He doesn’t do that anymore—but as anyone who’s familiar with the genre knows, the past never really goes away.

Eight years ago, Zella Grisham found her man in bed with another woman and shot him, but police soon discovered evidence pointing to her complicity in a $58 million heist. Bogus evidence that McGill himself planted. Seeking to do the right thing on behalf of the woman he helped send to prison for seven years, he agrees to help Zella track down her former lover to make amends and to find her child who was given up for adoption, but what should have been a couple of simple cases soon get complicated. Seems an awful lot of people still believe Zella did have something to do with the robbery, and all that money’s still out there.

Treachery, giant insurance corporations, vindictive cops, slimy lawyers and some imported killers aren’t all Leonid—who’s still no saint—has to contend with. His family is falling apart, his troubled wife is drinking again, and the activist father who abandoned him as a child to go join the “revolution” seems to have returned from the dead. It’s a dark, brooding, and quietly disturbing wallow in guilt, fear, lust, loneliness, and middle-aged angst that is miles away from the typical kiss kiss bang bang of the genre. Call it noir for grown-ups, if you must, but it’s one of the most unsettling yet cathartic reads I’ve come across in a while.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 15 February 2012 04:02

mosley_allididwasshootmymanLeonid McGill’s stories are the polar opposite of a comfort read—not necessarily a bad thing.

The Dark Rose
Derek Hill

A bullied teenager, Paul, begins a friendship with his classmate, Daniel, after the latter agrees to protect him from other students. The two become fast friends, spending all of their free time together riding their bikes and playing video games. But their closeness breeds a negative intensity as well, and Daniel grows jealous any time Paul wants to spend time with anyone other than him.

Eventually, volatile Daniel is charged with a murder, and Paul, who was there, must testify against him. While waiting for the court date, Paul is assigned to work at a historical garden out in the country as part of his plea deal and rehabilitation. There, he meets Louisa, a woman who is likewise haunted by a past relationship that ultimately ended in tragedy. The two begin a secret, passionate affair. The demons of the past come raging into their lives, however, and Louisa and Paul are forced to deal with the uncertainty of their forbidden present situation.

Erin Kelly’s second novel reads like an incantation, luring us into an emotionally complex tale of sexual obsession, blurred identities, and the consequences of making terrible decisions—prime ingredients for stellar storytelling. Although it is a character-driven literary tale, the narrative is vividly well-executed over three decades in non-linear fashion. Kelly skillfully generates a heated suspense throughout, and the last third of the novel is a mad dash of dark revelations fitting for any literary blockbuster. It’s a sublime mix of mood, melancholy, and melodrama with a dollop of kitchen-sink realism.

A country garden may make for an integral setting and symbol in the novel, but this is no romanticized England. Kelly’s is a modern domain, one peopled with loneliness, heartache, and frayed relationships. Tragedy rules with an unflinching gaze here. What makes this spell bind, though, are its memorable damaged lost souls—Paul, Daniel, and Louisa—who are evoked with clear-eyed compassion and dark fascination. Fans of Tana French, Donna Tartt, and Ruth Rendell à la A Judgement in Stone should relish it. The year may have just started, but I’m confident we’ll still be talking about The Dark Rose at the end of it all.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 15 February 2012 04:02

A bullied teenager, Paul, begins a friendship with his classmate, Daniel, after the latter agrees to protect him from other students. The two become fast friends, spending all of their free time together riding their bikes and playing video games. But their closeness breeds a negative intensity as well, and Daniel grows jealous any time Paul wants to spend time with anyone other than him.

Eventually, volatile Daniel is charged with a murder, and Paul, who was there, must testify against him. While waiting for the court date, Paul is assigned to work at a historical garden out in the country as part of his plea deal and rehabilitation. There, he meets Louisa, a woman who is likewise haunted by a past relationship that ultimately ended in tragedy. The two begin a secret, passionate affair. The demons of the past come raging into their lives, however, and Louisa and Paul are forced to deal with the uncertainty of their forbidden present situation.

Erin Kelly’s second novel reads like an incantation, luring us into an emotionally complex tale of sexual obsession, blurred identities, and the consequences of making terrible decisions—prime ingredients for stellar storytelling. Although it is a character-driven literary tale, the narrative is vividly well-executed over three decades in non-linear fashion. Kelly skillfully generates a heated suspense throughout, and the last third of the novel is a mad dash of dark revelations fitting for any literary blockbuster. It’s a sublime mix of mood, melancholy, and melodrama with a dollop of kitchen-sink realism.

A country garden may make for an integral setting and symbol in the novel, but this is no romanticized England. Kelly’s is a modern domain, one peopled with loneliness, heartache, and frayed relationships. Tragedy rules with an unflinching gaze here. What makes this spell bind, though, are its memorable damaged lost souls—Paul, Daniel, and Louisa—who are evoked with clear-eyed compassion and dark fascination. Fans of Tana French, Donna Tartt, and Ruth Rendell à la A Judgement in Stone should relish it. The year may have just started, but I’m confident we’ll still be talking about The Dark Rose at the end of it all.

Living Proof
Debbi Mack

In the year 2027 Dr. Arianna Drake runs such an amazingly successful fertility clinic that it’s caught the eye of the US Department of Embryo Preservation (DEP), an agency tasked with enforcing the laws that protect human embryos from harm. DEP suspects dirty business is going on beneath the clinic’s squeaky clean exterior, particularly given Dr. Drake’s radical past in which she supported the now-illegal use of embryos for scientific research.

In the hope that Dr. Drake will divulge her secrets, DEP agent Trent Rowe goes undercover and cozies up to Arianna but soon finds himself reluctantly falling for her. Rowe, whose faith has wavered in the past, discovers that, indeed, everything is not as it seems at the clinic, but what is at stake for Arianna is much more than academic research—it’s a serious matter of life and death, and a potentially groundbreaking scientific advancement. Faced with difficult moral decisions about faith, God, love and reason, Trent struggles to accommodate the seemingly conflicting ethics of science and religion.

Living Proof is a well-written thriller that deals with issues of great relevance in today’s world: When exactly does an embryo become a human being? Whose life is of most value? To her great credit, Peikoff creates believable, well-rounded characters who represent both sides of a tough moral question.

Teri Duerr
Wednesday, 15 February 2012 04:02

peikoff_livingproofA thriller set in the near-future where medicine, ethics, and religion collide.