In Button Holed, veteran mystery writer Kylie Logan—better known as Miranda Bliss and/or Casey Daniels—introduces another new shop owner to the mystery scene. Josie Giancola, proprietor of Button Box, a Chicago shop specializing in buttons, has attracted a celebrity client, an actress who wishes to adorn her wedding dress with unique buttons. Unfortunately, though, the starlet arrives early for her consultation and is slain in Josie’s shop, with an unusual button—not from Josie’s inventory—the only clue remaining on the scene. As a preeminent expert on buttons, Josie uses her professional research skills to track down the provenance of the button and the identity of the murderer. Button Holed is a promising series debut, although I am still pondering a mystery unresolved by the book: How on earth can anyone earn a living by selling buttons? Maybe subsequent series entries will enlighten me on this score.
These days, it’s also hard to survive as a bookstore proprietor, although, in Double Booked for Death, protagonist Darla Pettistone is fortunate to have inherited her new bookstore, along with a small fortune—and giant black cat, Hamlet—from her great-aunt. This first entry in the Black Cat Bookshop Mystery series is a harbinger of good books to follow, but that’s not surprising, considering that the author, Ali Brandon, is really seasoned writer Diane A.S. Stuckart.
In Double Booked for Death, Texas transplant Darla embraces her New York bookstore business by immediately hosting a book signing by Valerie Baylor, the leading author of the bestselling Haunted High series, a favorite among teenaged girls. The signing goes wildly awry when the author meets her untimely demise during intermission. Murder? You bet—but by whom? A religious fanatic? A wronged author from whom Baylor stole a manuscript? A jealous twin brother? A greedy agent? The possibilities are many, and it remains for Darla, her retired cop friend Jake, and Hamlet to identify the killer.
In case you are wondering, Hamlet fulfills his role as sleuth by knocking down books containing hints about the killer’s identity. Brandon/Stuckart does a fine job with the plot and execution here—and even incorporates an element of romance, as she introduces a potential love-interest in the form of a hunky cop named Reese, who will undoubtedly be making an encore appearance in the next Black Cat Bookshop Mystery.
This is one of the most entertaining, informative, and critically astute recent books on crime and mystery fiction, all from an Irish point of view and written in variants of that eloquent and melodic national prose style. The subtitle is a happy misnomer: Though most of the contributors are contemporary Irish crime writers, their consideration is not limited to the present century or even to Ireland. Ian Campbell Ross' introduction, a general history of the genre, mentions some well-known writers we may not even realize were Irish: L.T. Meade, Freeman Wills Crofts, Nicholas Blake. John Connolly’s excellent survey understates the American Golden Age but displays critical acumen (translation: he agrees with me) when he pronounces Henning Mankell overrated and ranks Ross Macdonald ahead of Hammett and Chandler, a view shared by Declan Hughes, who finds Macdonald, in his obsession with family secrets, in tune with the “traditional Irish experience”: “There have always been plenty of skeletons in the Irish closet, and for a long time, we didn’t even hear them rattle. Or at least, we said we didn’t.” (Though Macdonald’s stock has declined among contemporary American critics, Anthony Boucher would have agreed with Connolly and Hughes.)
With noir-side writers the strongest influence on contemporary Irish crime fiction, classical detection is generally undervalued here, though Cora Harrison’s article on her historical judge Mara, Brehon of the Burren, stands up for the traditional detective story. Ruth Dudley Edwards notes that Liam O’Flaherty intended The Informer as a thriller and was disappointed it wasn’t published as one. Adrian McKinty on Northern Irish crime fiction discusses a number of past writers who will be new to American readers. John Banville (aka Benjamin Black) is interviewed by editor Burke, Tana French by Claire Coughlan. Among other well-known contributors are Stuart Neville, Ken Bruen, and Paul Charles. A few contribute short stories or true crime pieces in lieu of literary essays. Gene Kerrigan’s otherwise good piece on hardboiled fiction makes two mistakes in one sentence: Agatha Christie’s novel was not called Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, and Edmund Wilson doesn’t even discuss that book in his famous essay “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Among continuing subjects are the reasons for Ireland’s lack of a strong tradition of indigenous crime fiction, the influence of the Troubles on Irish attitudes and literature, and the deceptive Irish stereotype in British and American fiction and drama. Cormac Millar notes that his mother Eilís Dillon was a militant Irish patriot but hewed to the cozy and comic tradition most palatable to outsiders in her mysteries.
The volume’s one serious defect is the lack of an index. How useful it would be to conveniently trace all the references to Brian Moore, whose name turns up in many of these essays.
For biographical details, the author relies primarily on Clark’s memoir Kitchen Privileges (2002), but she relates elements of the fiction to events in Clark’s life. All the novels are discussed from the outstanding 1975 debut Where Are the Children? through The Shadow of Your Smile (2010), and while De Roche is clearly an admirer of her subject, she is not reluctant to quote critical detractors or to give some guidance on which novels are best and which least. Some of the analysis belabors the obvious, but the novels are described in a way that will attract readers new and old. Interesting sidelights include the account of Clark’s working methods with editor Michael Korda and the history of the Adams Round Table, the writing group Clark and Thomas Chastain started in the early 1980s. (One rare error: Caribbean Blues (1978) is a group novel rather than a short-story collection, and I don’t believe it was advanced as an Adams Round Table book.)
In a clearly written scholarly trek over fresh critical ground, Emrys asserts that Wilkie Collins, inaccurately lumped with early writers of epistolary novels, should be credited with inventing a new form, the casebook or novel in testimony. The format is especially effective for a detective story, planting clues and effecting reader surprises while achieving depth of characterization. All of Collins’ novels and some of his short stories are touched on, with most attention to The Woman in White (1860), more truly a detective story than generally thought, and The Moonstone (1868).
Emrys, who edited the Vera Caspary collection The Murder in the Stork Club (Crippen & Landru, 2009), shows how Caspary consciously adapted Collins’ casebook method in the classic Laura (1943) and later novels. Many readers will be spurred to go beyond that one famous book to a large and distinguished body of work.
The discussion may seem forbiddingly technical and academic at times, but mystery fans and general readers will find enjoyable and useful the discussions of individual titles by the two main subjects and other writers, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Michael Innes’ Lament for a Maker, Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace’s The Documents in the Case, and Julian Symons’ The Immaterial Murder Case. Most surprising is the fairly laudatory discussion of Fergus Hume, a very prolific writer usually dismissed with passing reference to The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Among contemporary writers touched on are Michael Gruber, Elizabeth Peters, and Michael Cox.
This is one of the year’s best books of mystery scholarship and deserves strong Edgar consideration.
Originally published in 1913, this was the first full-length book in English about mystery and detective fiction. Its value as an instruction manual is negligible after almost a century, but its historical interest is immense. By general consensus, Wells’ scores of mystery novels are much less important to the field than the wisdom and critical acumen she brought to this volume. Esenwein’s introduction is from the original edition. Mine was written this year and draws on my review in What About Murder? (1981, entry #99). The index is unfortunately absent, but everything else from the original edition is present.
In April Smith’s new and arguably best Ana Grey novel, the Southern California FBI agent is recuperating in Europe with her ex-Delta Force boyfriend, Sterling McCord, when the Bureau issues an unusually personal call to duty. Cecilia Nicosa, a half-sister she didn’t know existed, has been trying to reach out to her. Her bosses want Ana to visit the Nicosa compound in Siena, Italy, and find out whatever she can about Cecilia’s husband, Nicoli, a coffee magnate in bed with the mafia’s drug distributors. What she discovers is that Nicoli’s relationship with the mafia is a bit strained. His mistress is thought to be lupara bianca, white shotgun, the term used for a murder victim whose body is never found, and his son has been stabbed during a street festival. When Cecilia is kidnapped, Ana is forced to go off-duty and, with the help of McCord’s elite mercenaries, try to rescue her half-sister from a white shotgun fate. A plot this strong sometimes skimps on character or place. Not here. The author treats even the minor players to full-bodied and -blooded dimension. And her descriptions of the Southern Italy locations are more precise and knowledgeable than you’re likely to find in a full-length travelogue. Television and film actress Lovejoy (Law & Order, The Wire) not only has what sounds like a genuine Italian accent, something of a prerequisite, but her normal speaking voice is a smart match for Ana’s—firm but feminine, confident but with just a hint of vulnerability. This is one of the year’s top audios.
Though Colfer’s main claim to literary fame has been his Artemis Fowl novels for young adults, this one is for a somewhat older audience. The cover line says it all: “If you loved Artemis Fowl...it’s time to grow up.” The shaggy yarn is spun by a charming, garrulous Irishman named Daniel McEvoy who is being underemployed as a bouncer in a dim lap-dance bar in Cloisters, New Jersey. A seemingly unimportant event—his rather diplomatic handling of a boorish customer who has kissed one of the girls on her nether cheek—escalates into murder and torture. But here’s the bottom line: As concocted by Colfer and read by John Keating, this is one of the most wildly funny books you’re likely to hear. Along with that, it’s as hardboiled as a Jack Reacher adventure. This duality is reflected in the double-entendre title—there is gunplay, but McEvoy seems less concerned about that than the fate of his incipient hair plugs. I should mention that the narrator is the same John Keating, of the theatrical Irish Rep Company, who recently read the considerably more serious Benjamin Black (John Banville) novel A Death in Summer. Here, he’s the very model of a screwball adventurer, wondering if a hit man he’s facing might be whimsical enough to dispatch him with a smiley face of bullet holes. The gags, like the action, come fast and furious, ranging from witty wordplay to wild slapstick. Keating delivers them with the comic timing of a County Cork Seinfeld.
As any mystery fan should know, Black Mask was the prime pick of the pulp magazines. In the early days of its more than three decades of publication it helped kick-start the careers of such crime fiction giants as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Erle Stanley Gardner. Over the years, its pages have yielded several anthologies, but in September, Otto Penzler edited the ultimate collection, The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories, with special emphasis on “big.” Over 1,100 pages of hardboiled mayhem. These audio volumes offer an excellent sampling, along with knowledgeable introductions to each short story. The first gathers five of the magazine’s favorite providers. Gardner’s “Come and Get It,” is a breathless yarn featuring the Phantom Crook, Ed Jenkins, narrated by Wyman in a voice a little too Thirties-tough. Sklar’s deep rumble is a much better fit for “Arson Plus,” the first Continental Op story, written by Hammett under the pen name of Peter Collinson. Larkin’s breezy approach works nicely for George Harmon Coxe’s Flashgun Casey tale, “Fall Guy,” and toughens a bit for Frederick Nebel’s “Doors in the Dark,” a Capt. Steve McBride and reporter Kennedy entry. And Lester Dent’s “Luck,” his preferred, though unpublished, version of his first Oscar Sail adventure, gets a nice rapid and raspy reading from Gurner. That same performer stops just a lisp short of a Bogart impression in reading the prize of all the collections, Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” as it originally appeared in three segments. It’s an excellent rendition that, when compared to the author-edited novel, has quite a few interesting, if not crucial, changes. It occupies most of volume 3, along with “Cry Silence,” a surprise ending quickie by Frederic Brown, read by Gurner, and William Cole’s mordant crooks-on-the-run caper, “Waiting for Rusty,” read by Larkin. Volume 2 consists of five swiftly paced stories, two of them—Stewart Sterling’s “Ten Carats of Lead,” about the search for cop-killing jewel thieves, and Talmadge Powell’s whodunit “Her Dagger Before Me”—energetically read by Larkin. Wyatt Blassingame’s “Murder Is Bad Luck,” featuring a chase through the streets of New Orleans, gives Wyman his best showcase. And Richard Sale’s “The Dancing Rats,” a doomsday scenario set in WWII Oahu, read with dynamic enthusiasm by Gurner, ends the middle volume on a suspenseful high note.
Lisa Gardner has introduced readers to a variety of characters in her 16 novels.
But her latest Catch Me gave the author an opportunity to revisit some of her previous characters.
In telling the story of Charlie Grant, a young woman who needs to learn to defend herself, Catch Me also offers a reunion of sorts of characters from other novels.
Catch Me gives readers a chance to catch up with J.P. Dillon from The Perfect Husband. (“I always liked that character and I still get mail from readers about him,” Gardner said.)
Also making appearances are Sergeant Roan Griffin (The Survivors Club), FBI Agent Kimberly Quincy (Say Goodbye, The Killing Hour) and ex-FBI profiler Pierce Quincy (Gone, The Next Accident, The Third Victim).
Gardner weaves these other characters seamlessly into Catch Me and makes them a brief part of the investigation. “I like all my characters. It was nice having them back,” said Gardner.
Catch Me continues Gardner's series on Boston police detective D.D. Warren. But Catch Me offers readers a different side of Warren, who is just back from maternity leave.
"For the last few books, D.D. Warren felt unfinished," said Gardner. "In Catch Me, I felt she had arrived. Part of being a reader and a writer is we are always looking for a sense of closure. What we can't get in real life."
Gardner often thinks about bringing back some of her previous characters. "Tess from Love You More tugs at me," she said.
"All my characters are my favorite. I like them all in their own way," she said.
"Charlie [from Catch Me] got under my skin. I appreciate the everywoman-ness of her. She doesn't have an identity and has to figure out how to become a person. I felt for her. We can recognize in her our own weaknesses."
The latest issue of Mystery Scene features my interview with best-selling author Lisa Gardner. I am a bit biased here, but the profile is quite good. Check it out.
Our talk lasted about two hours and while the story is quite long, some of our conversation, such as her comments on her characters, just wouldn't fit. That's why we have this blog.
Finder’s second thriller (after Vanished) to feature Nick Heller finds the ex-Army Special Forces operative searching for a family friend’s abducted daughter. What he, and we, shortly discover is that hedge fund mogul Marshall Marcus’ teen offspring, Alexa, has been kidnapped by experts and buried in an elaborately constructed coffin that allows them to provide or deny air, water, food and communication, while a hidden camera streams her image out over the Internet. The only things not apparent, along with the coffin’s location, are the identity of the kidnappers and what they want. Reader Graham’s rendition of Heller’s first person narration is appropriately tough, wary and determined, if a little more youthful than one might expect. The last adds a plaintive quality to his performance as the terrified teen victim. And his voice is adaptable enough to do justice to an assortment of disparate characters, including a gruff Russian sadist, an arrogant senator, a hard-as-nails hooker, and Alexa’s not-quite-candid father. The novel is as tension-packed and tricky as any Finder fan might expect and Graham’s pacing perfectly mirrors its increasing suspense as time and Alexa’s air supply start to run out. This is one of those parked-car audiobooks, the kind that keep you sitting in the driveway with the engine running just to hear what happens next.
A series that runs as long and as successfully as Grafton’s alphabet adventures of private detective Kinsey Milhone has to offer more than just a likeable protagonist, solid plots, and a smooth, involving style. The author provides all that in spades, but just as she’s been clever enough to keep Kinsey’s investigations in the technological dark ages of the 1980s, before cell phones, the Internet, security cameras, and DNA testing made concocting crime fiction so difficult, she’s also continued to keep the novels fresh by changing Kinsey and her cases enough to ward off formula fatigue. In 22 novels, the tough but sensitive sleuth has solved whodunits, done a bit of tracking, been a hostage to murderous gangsters, and even gone light on crime in favor of exploring elements in her personal life, including the discovery of relatives she didn’t know existed. Here, she interrupts her first person investigation of a shoplifting gang to tell us a story about a handsome socialite, who, ignored and deceived by her attorney husband, has an affair with a shady but oddly honorable mobbed up loan shark. The fun here is not in trying to beat Kinsey to the discovery of whodunit but in wondering what part that seemingly unconnected affair will play in the novel’s finale. Narrator Kaye is the one constant of these alphabetized audios. If she isn’t the official voice of Kinsey Milhone by this time, she should be.
As a novelist and the founder of The Moth story project, Green draws in audiences with good old-fashioned storytelling.
Mystery Scene checked in with the author in 2009, just prior to the release of Ravens.
Photo: Nick Cardillicchio
George Dawes Green may be the least Google-able author on Earth. It’s true that a recent Internet search of his name yielded 92,100 hits. But nearly all of these links lead to movie reviews and databases—as might be expected if your first two thrillers were snapped up by Hollywood as showcases for Demi Moore and Alec Baldwin (The Juror, 1996) and Samuel L. Jackson (The Caveman’s Valentine, 2001). Missing are the soul-baring blog, online interviews, or a personal website with an “official” biography.
“I do have a Facebook page,” says this novelist-poet-screenwriter, almost apologetically. “My publisher kind of insisted. But I do not spend time on it.”
Fitting, since Ravens, Green’s return to long-form fiction after 14 years, hinges on the dangers of releasing too much personal information into such social networking sites. Due out from Grand Central Publishing in July, this psychological thriller offers a chillingly suitable pair of cyber-terrorists trawling on MySpace, Shaw McBride and Romeo Zderko, whose day jobs are in tech support.
“In the online community, where everybody is pouring everything into this world, we really expose ourselves to any kind of manipulation,” Green says. “So tech support is a great career for people who wish to be manipulative.”
Facebook and MySpace weren’t tools for terror when Green wrote his first exploration of charismatic evil, The Caveman’s Valentine, which won the Best First Novel Edgar in 1994 and was followed a year later by The Juror, also featuring a spellbinding sociopath. (Both were reissued by Grand Central in June.) Green did not intend Ravens to be a cautionary tale—“I’m not a didactic writer”—but doesn’t mind if it is taken that way.
“I do believe that, as we go down this road of electronic media technology, each step is more superficial and less involving than where we were before,” he says. “Almost anybody would agree that they are more affected by great novels that they’ve read than by a movie they’ve seen. But it is hard to get into a novel. Movies are so much easier. Television is also less affecting than movies, but it is even easier to stay home and watch TV. And then, it is easier to go onto the Internet and play around. I think that going online is a big trap.”
But don’t dismiss Green as a Luddite just yet. Not long after his first two novels’ successes, he founded The Moth, a not-for-profit “raconteuring club.” Held primarily in venues around New York and Los Angeles, it showcases ten-minute storytelling by artists, authors, and other cultural figures including Richard Price, Garrison Keillor, and Moby—as well as regular folk, such as a voodoo priestess, a neurosurgeon, and a former pickpocket. The programs are now available online as free podcasts and generate more than a half-million downloads a month. “So I am not entirely against the Internet,” Green says. “I am just mostly against it.”
If it furthers Green’s aim to foster the art and enjoyment of storytelling, then the ends justify the means. “These are unscripted personal stories, like those we tell each other in the kitchen late at night,” he explains. “And they have never really been brought to a stage before. There are other Moths springing up all over the country and we’re about to start a national radio show. There is clearly a deep hunger for this story. But we are really about encouraging people to just go and listen to any person’s story. They come to The Moth because that is where the experience, the community, is.”
The Moth began in Green’s New York City living room in 1997, as a way to recreate evenings spent swapping stories with pals on his friend Wanda Bullard’s porch on his native St. Simon’s Island, Georgia. As the organization’s website explains: “The screen around Wanda’s porch had a hole where moths would flutter in and get trapped in the light. Similarly, George and his friends found that the characters in their best stories would often find themselves drawn to some bright light—of adventure, ambition, knowledge—but then find themselves burned or trapped, leaving them with some essential conflict to face before the story could reach its conclusion.”
In Green’s own novels, his characters are similarly attracted to people and situations that might lead to their doom. Spinning such high-tension tales with dark humor seems an offshoot of his offbeat Southern heritage, illustrated in his podcasted story “The House That Sherman Didn’t Burn.” In it, Green’s mother takes matters into her own hands when faced with a threat to the family’s former plantation. His other literary legacy: His father, Robert M. Green, was a science fiction writer who received fan mail from Damon Knight, the Hugo Award–winning author and founder of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
“My father wrote fantasy stories, usually with a little bit of time travel,” Green recalls. “But really they were just stories about character. In that sense, I inherited something from my dad. We love genre, but it’s just scaffolding on which to hang stories about character. It is all that anybody really cares about. It’s all I care about.”
Though Green says he always wanted to be a writer, it took him a while to claim psychological suspense as his genre. A high-school dropout at 15 (a sleeping disorder disrupted his classroom concentration), Green worked odd jobs across the United States while gaining a reputation as a poet and writing a “big, baggy novel” that was never published. Eventually he found his way to Guatemala, where he became fascinated with local handwoven fabrics. This led to him designing and manufacturing a line of women’s sportswear that was carried in 600 boutiques around the world.
That success brought him to New York and lasted through much of the 1980s. “It was an exciting and strange interlude in my life,” notes Green. “But I don’t have the ability to focus very long on making money. When you are a poet, you don’t realize that people involved in business are always thinking about cash flow. At some point, I just couldn’t live with my head in accounts receivable all the time. So after eight years, I sold the company. The next day, I sat down and started to work on The Caveman’s Valentine.”
That Green found his way to the thriller is due to Andrew Klavan, Green’s neighbor in upstate New York and a fellow poet, but also a pseudonymous mystery writer at the time. An Edgar winner as “Keith Peterson,” Klavan had just hit the bestseller list, under his real name, with the 1991 thriller Don’t Say a Word and encouraged Green to try his hand at psychological suspense. “I did and I loved the form,” says Green. “It seems to me all novels are about transgression in some way or another, and so are about crimes.”
“Crime in the heart of my novels seems like a natural thing. But I love structure—to me it is what makes fiction magical and otherworldly. Only in those novels that are rich with story do we actually get transported out of ourselves.”
For his first crime fiction, Green brought forth an almost otherworldly detective—Romulus Ledbetter, a Juilliard-trained former composer who lives in a cave in Manhattan’s Inwood Park. He finds the frozen, naked body of another denizen of the park, a troubled young man sometimes employed as a photographer’s model, outside his “front door.” Poetically paranoid Romulus rants against the man he thinks is responsible—the omnipotent Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant, who is either a figment of Romulus’ schizophrenia or just his embodiment of cultural and corporate corruption. Events put him at odds with the city cops, one of whom is his own daughter, and he rouses himself to re-enter the world he left behind to look for the killer.
“I read a newspaper story about a very brilliant homeless man who was found murdered, and that started this chain reaction in my brain,” Green explains. Another sensational story of the time inspired the character of the photographer, David Leppenraub: The 1985 “death mask murder” of a male model that involved New York art gallery owner Andrew Crispo. “He believed that he was supporting great art, so whatever else he did was excusable.”
But query letters Green sent out for Caveman met with little interest. Then Klavan offered to show the manuscript to his agent, Molly Friedrich, who loved it and quickly sold it to Warner Books. “I’d really come to the point where I thought, ‘There is no way I am going to be published—I really need to go find a new career,’” says Green. “Later, as I went up on stage to accept the Edgar, I was aware that I was surrounded by these agents who were all applauding, but had not been willing to look at the book.”
In the meantime, Green had holed himself up in a rented one-room schoolhouse in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, to work on his second thriller. The Juror, not surprisingly, included villains hiding out in a one-room schoolhouse in the Poconos.
“Just as The Caveman’s Valentine came out, I sold The Juror. Within a week, we made this huge Hollywood sale,” says Green. “At the time, I was driving around in a car with holes in the floorboard. It was winter and I was freezing to death. I stopped in at a bookstore in Amherst, Massachusetts, and introduced myself, and the owner said, ‘I just read about your book in The New York Times.’ It was this incredible, glowing review. It was a great, great moment.”
The Juror quickly shot up bestseller lists, propelled by its rich story of struggling single mom and aspiring sculptor, Annie Laird, sitting in on the trial of a mob boss. The seductive, Tao-spouting “Teacher” woos her, then terrorizes her into persuading her fellow jurors to vote “not guilty.” But his menace doesn’t end there. The pawn in this twisted chess game becomes her young son, Oliver.
“I am very affected by the work of Thomas de Quincey,” says Green. “His essay ‘The English Mail-Coach’ was a particular way of looking at terror. It gave me the idea for a crucial scene, which also appears in the movie, where a woman is in a car aimed at her own child. She’s caught in this horrific situation, knowing what is going to happen but being utterly helpless to change it.”
Green did some uncredited screenwriting for movie version of The Juror, then wrote a screenplay for Caveman that was eventually filmed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and released in 2001. A few unproduced screenplays, the shepherding of The Moth, traveling whenever he could…before Green knew it, more than a decade had gone by without another major publication. “I just think time got away from me. I looked around and said, ‘I’d better write a book.’”
Despite, or perhaps because of, his sleep disorder, Green found his inspiration in a nightmare. “I went to visit a family that I did not know with a friend of mine and, while we were there, they won the lottery,” Green recalls. “I decided that it was my mission to persuade them to give away all their money. There was something very strange and creepy about my self-righteousness about this.
“So I woke from the dream in a sweat, thanking God that I was not really that person, but then thinking this was a great start for a novel. I’d been working on a kind of complex novel set in Savannah, but Ravens just unfolded itself in my mind. So I thought that I would write it quickly.”
It didn’t turn to be quite that simple. Green started with the premise that the dysfunctional Boatwright family would be frightened into splitting their $318 million winnings with twisted techie Shaw, as his childhood friend and coworker, Romeo, does his bidding. “As I worked on the novel, Romeo became more and more complex, more disturbed. The questions lurking in his mind—‘Can I be violent for the sake of my friend? Can I support this cause?’—are really what any soldier asks himself. This moral question became the center of the novel, similar to The Red Badge of Courage.”
Shaw’s spur-of-the-moment scheme is to give his half away so he can bring “rapture and beauty into this world,” which wins him public adoration. But Green says, “Shaw is not benevolent at all. He is just very self-righteous, in the way of all great charlatans. Goodness is a way to enrich and empower himself. I was sort of inspired by the story of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Latter Day Saints.”
Shaw along with Caveman’s Leppenraub and Juror’s Teacher are all brothers under the same snakeskin. “They are amalgam of various manipulative people that I had known,” Green says. “I am kind of drawn to people who are so charming and self-assured about the good things that they’re doing, even while they are being horrifically evil.
“But in Ravens, the crime is being committed in plain sight, right in front of the world media. What really intrigues me is the crime that’s so audacious that it does not even try to be secret.”
Though his other novels were set around New York, Green felt Ravens had to migrate to the South. “I grew up in Brunswick, Georgia, and I am very much in love with it, but this area is a fertile ground for a charlatans, absolutely,” says Green, who lives in the area. “And I do think that these moral questions are thrown into relief in the South more than they would be anywhere else. You know, Walker Percy said, ‘The South produces better literature because we lost.’”
Green’s heroes, on the other hand, are driven by a nobler force. It’s Romulus’ friendship with the young man who is victimized that draws him out of his cave. Annie in The Juror finds strength in her fierce devotion to her son. “Evil is a concept, but love can overcome everything,” Green believes.
Like those moths on the back porch, Ravens’ Tara Boatwright—the teenage daughter whose too-revealing MySpace page entices Shaw to covet more then her family’s sudden wealth—feels the pull toward her possible destruction. Will she overcome the temptation through her relationship with her equally magnetic grandmother, Nell? (A friend of Green’s in Brunswick—“a very powerful force and an amazing poker player”—served as model for the no-nonsense matriarch.)
While his characters are complicated, Green credits his experience at The Moth with paring down his plotting. “I think my work has been changed and deepened by that,” he says. “When you are at The Moth, you are listening to voices. You can shut your eyes and follow everything through this thread of a voice. When the voice is telling a very dramatic story, then you are swept away. The story does not have to be particularly complex and it does not have to be particularly big. Most of the time in Ravens I am describing the very simple things that Romeo does. So I like to think that The Moth has made my stories simpler and more essential.”
It won’t be another 14 years before Green tells another story. He has picked up his Savannah saga again. Yes, it’s a thriller. “But again, I think I am wandering astray from the form pretty far,” he reveals. “And again it is about people surviving in an age of great manipulation, and people resisting this manipulation. And again, it is about a crime that people know is going on, but no one seems to have the power to do anything about it. This time, though, it’s a crime that unfolds throughout a lifetime.”
That’s all Green will say for now. In the meantime, don’t expect him to reveal more on Facebook.
Above right, George Dawes Green attending a storytelling performance at The Moth Mainstage in New York City. Photo: Matt Bresler.
The Moth has recently received a $750,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The money will be used by the New York City-based group, founded in 1997, to expand its Moth Radio Hour to a weekly program.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #110.
Long-running series will, naturally, have a slew of characters who come in and out of the novels. Some will be in for the long haul; others will be in only one or two books before vanishing.
It's hard to remember everyone.
Take the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris. Haven't you always wanted a guide to every character (human and nonhuman), and term used in the books?
Maybe a Sookie Stackhouse family tree? A sort of Sookie encyclopedia? Or maybe a map of Bon Temps.
Although the Sookie novels could never be confused with culinary mysteries, Harris does feature a lot of delicious sounding dishes in her books.
And for true fans of Sookie, and the Showtime series True Blood, there is nothing like trivia to pique your interest.
All that, and more, are in the fan-friendly The Sookie Stackhouse Companion. Harris has even written a novella "Small Town Wedding" featuring Sookie, Sam and Quinn.
The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, edited by Harris, gives readers a closer look at the novels and the characters. Alan Ball, creator of the Showtime series, talks about True Blood; Harris answers just about every question in an interview pulled from fan questions. And the Companion is as delightful to read as is Harris' series.
The Sookie Stackhouse Companion recently was nominated for an Agatha Award. Harris will be the guest of honor during Sleuthfest, March 1-4, 2012, in Orlando. (Yes, it's still time to register).
In the Sookie Stackhouse series, Harris created a new mythology of vampires -- funny, sexy, living side by side with humans.
Look behind the supernatural and you will see a story about survivors, characters who can withstand a lot and yet still soldier on.
Certainly this is true of Sookie, the telepathic Louisiana barmaid who runs with vampires, werewolves and assorted creatures.
Sookie made her debut in 2001’s Dead Until Dark. Since then, mystery ficton hasn't been the same.
A guide about a long-running series makes sense and seems to be a mini-trend.
Mcfarland & Co Inc. has several literary companions, including ones on Dick Francis and Scottish politician, statesman and thriller writer John Buchan. The latest is Ed McBain/Evan Hunter: A Literary Companion edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, a short story writer and editor of eight anthologies. Foxwell also is Mystery Scene consulting editor, and a cofounder of the Malice Domestic Convention
Evan Hunter published more than 120 novels under a variety of pseudonymns as well as teleplays and screenplays, including Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, and the 1954 novel The Blackboard Jungle. As Ed McBain, he wrote the long-running series about the detectives of the 87th Precinct.
The Ed McBain/Evan Hunter guide details the author's works, characters, and recurring themes.
The Complete Patricia Cornwell Companion contains book-by-book synopses, character portraits, a profile of the author, and more.
Several guides are available for Da Vinci Code fans, including the The Unauthorized Dan Brown Companion.
Mysteries rely not just on the lead characters and nasty villains to spin the action. They also need the supporting characters.
Harry Bosch needs the other cops with whom he works. Alex Delaware needs Sturgis.
Myron Bolitar needs Win.
Bill Smith needs Lydia Chin.
Jack Reacher just needs his toothbrush.
But sometimes those supporting characters have four legs.
As a dog lover, I enjoy reading about dogs in mysteries. But I dislike it when the dogs have an unrealistic role. Dogs don't talk.
They can't drive cars. But they are among the most wonderful companions, offering unconditional love. And, they can be heroes.
Take Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her, the 14th novel in her series about London detectives Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James. The two newly married detectives have a blended household full of children and dogs. But in No Mark Upon Her, it's the K9 search and rescue dogs who command part of the attention.
Kieran Connolly came back from four tours of duty in Iraq a broken man. But his job with the Thames Valley Search and Rescue has given him a purpose. But this "purpose" started on the day he adopted his dog Finn as a "fat, black, wiggly puppy." To Kieran, "Finn was more than a companion, he was Kieran's partner, and that union had given Kieran something he'd thought was gone from his life—a useful job."
As with cops and others who work with dogs, the relationship between Kieran and his black Lab is close. And No Mark Upon Her explores this. Each trusts the other's instincts. And they should. Finn proves to be a real hero and his role in the the story and the investigation is believable.
No Mark Upon Her, like other crime fiction novels, comes down to the the unspeakable things that people do to each other. But having a dog along helps.
In Lisa Gardner's Catch Me, Charlie Grant is convinced she will be murdered—and she thinks even knows the date. So to prepare, she has cut herself off from just about every interpersonal relationship, divides her time between work and self-defense activities, and spends her nights alone. The last thing she needs or wants is a dog—something that she will have to take care of, worry about, and possibly even protect.
Then along comes a stray that wanders around Charlie's rooming house.
At first, Charlie calls her "the dog that was not my dog." At first the dog starts to follow Charlie, then going on her daily runs.
But soon, Charlie is taking her to the vet, getting her shots, buying her dog food and putting out a dish of water. Charlie also names "the dog that was not my dog" Tulip.
If a dog has shots, food, designated bowls and, most of all, a name, then "the dog that was not my dog" is indeed your dog.
Gardner subtly allows Tulip to become more and more a part of Charlie's life, showing that allowing yourself to care about something beyond yourself can be a salvation of sorts.
Gardner also uses Tulip in a realistic way in Catch Me. The dog is, in her own way, a hero to Charlie but Tulip is not a superhero. She's just a good dog and, often, that is more than enough.
Gardner also is the cover story of the current issue of Mystery Scene. I know I may be biased, but I think it is a good profile.
Michael Allan Mallory Feeds the Animals
Members of the animal kingdom are now taking on a greater role in an increasing number of modern mysteries. Scan the bookshelves and you’ll see books involving horses, dogs, cats, pet sitters, veterinarians, and birdwatchers, to name only a few.
This zoological trend isn’t all that remarkable if you consider that in the past several decades animals have taken on more significance in our lives. Years ago the prevailing view was that animals were soulless, intellectually limited creatures that operated on instinct only. Yet with each passing decade we learn just how much we’ve underestimated our animal friends, learning that they are more intelligent and lead richer emotional lives than we gave them credit for.
It would have been outright peculiar to have heard someone in the 1930s refer to Fido or Fluffy as a member of the family, yet now it’s common practice. There’s an entire cable television channel called Animal Planet, and a radio network called Animal Radio. Our interest in animals has never been higher, reflecting both our curiosity and our concern for their welfare.
Modern zoo design has encompassed this new understanding and compassion. The old concrete jail cells of the past are almost nonexistent. Today’s zoo enclosures strive to provide a more natural and dynamic habitat for animals while providing an enriched experience for the zoo visitor.
Co-author Marilyn Victor and my passion for animals—for their welfare and conservation—coupled with a love of the mystery novel, inspired us to create Lavender “Snake” Jones, a zoologist sleuth. In Death Roll, Snake works at the Minnesota Valley Zoo with her Aussie husband, curator Jeff Jones. When the director of the zoo winds up as a late-night snack for a 15-foot saltwater crocodile, Snake sets out to prove the police have arrested the wrong man, using her knowledge of animal behavior to ferret out the identity of the real killer.
Death Roll offers the reader behind-the-scenes insights into the workings of a metropolitan zoo. A tricky balancing act for us was creating an intriguing whodunit while weaving in animal encounters that arose naturally from the story line. The zoo wasn’t merely background atmosphere for us, it was a major element in the novel.
A zoologist/zookeeper might seem an unusual choice for a sleuth, yet not when you consider that caring for animals requires keen powers of observation. Captive animals can’t tell their caretakers how they’re feeling or where it hurts. Their nature is to conceal their injuries so as not to stand out to predators. Animal professionals must be able to interpret subtle clues to determine the health of their charges, a skill also useful when dealing with the human animal and looking into the heart of a murderer.
Death Roll, Marilyn Victor and Michael Allan Mallory, Five Star, May 2007, $25.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
Murder, Anne White wrote
Last year at this time I gave myself a pat on the back. I’m on a good track, I thought. I’ve created a protagonist I like, elected her mayor of a charming upstate New York town, and brought her safely through a number of confrontations with villains who had murder on their minds.
But before I’d finished the first chapter of Secrets Dark and Deep, the fourth book in my Lake George Mystery Series, I knew I had a problem.
For several years Loren Graham, my thirtysomething mayor of sleepy little Emerald Point, through no fault of her own—well, almost no fault of her own—had been caught up in mysterious goings-on, dark plots, and murderous deeds which left her struggling to escape with her life.
At the same time Emerald Point, the town I’d created as a charming lakeside village, was contending with an influx of crime and criminals. Not the ideal situation for a community anxious to attract tourists or for a mayor hoping for reelection.
Emerald Point, I realized, was suffering from Jessica Fletcher Syndrome—a condition marked by an unreasonably high number of murders in a small, otherwise peaceful setting. And like Jessica herself, the fictional detective we all know and love, Loren never failed to get involved.
I decided to face the problem head-on.
Early in Secrets Dark and Deep, Deputy Jim Thompson gives Loren a warning. In his stern, laconic style, he spells out his ultimatum to her: Stay out of the law enforcement business and leave crime solving to the experts, or lose the sheriff’s department’s support in the next election.
Although Loren’s skilled at compromise, she realizes Jim is serious. And Jim—six and a half feet tall, broad shouldered, muscular, and dedicated to law enforcement—does serious to perfection.
Since Loren also knows when a compromise can’t be negotiated, she pays attention—for several long, quiet months.
But on an early fall night a woman she hasn’t met bursts into her house and asks for help. Her name is Darla Phillips and she’s staying a few houses away with Arthur Blake and his reclusive mother Victoria. Arthur, known locally as the Bat Man, spends most nights from spring through fall wandering through the neighborhood, recording his sightings of bats who make their home in a nearby Adirondack mine.
Darla, breathless and upset, pulls Loren past the Blakes’ yard, ablaze with the lights Arthur turns on at night to attract bats, and into the dark cellar of a burned-out house. In the ruins of the stone foundation, Darla points her flashlight at a skeleton.
The next day, despite her resolve to stay out of the law enforcement business, Loren can’t resist inviting the coroner to her house for a hot lunch after he’s spent long hours in the cellar examining the skeleton before sending it off to the morgue. Doc, grateful for the invitation, shares some information about his findings, but Loren, determined to take Jim’s warning to heart, resists getting involved.
Despite her best intentions though, one thing leads to another, and Loren finds herself in a terrifying situation where she’s forced to confront her deepest fears if she is to escape with her life.
Now I’m wondering where to go next. How many murders will be too many for Emerald Point? Despite my efforts to sidestep JFS, is Loren headed for disaster?
Well…during 12 years of programming, through countless reruns, in the more than 70 Murder She Wrote books ghost-written by Donald Bain, Jessica Fletcher stuck to her familiar pattern. Sure, fans may have poked a little fun, but they never tired of watching her.
So what am I worrying about? Loren Graham should be so lucky.
Secrets Dark and Deep, Anne White, Hilliard and Harris, $16.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
Wonderful independent bookstores abound from Portland, Oregon's Murder by the Book to Centuries & Sleuths in Forest Park, Illinois, to Partners & Crime in New York City and all spots in between, but Mary Alice Gorman and Richard Goldman's Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, holds a special place in many mystery readers' hearts. After more than two decades of books, readings, review writing and recommending the latest and greatest mysteries to us all, Gorman and Goldman recently announced they are looking for a buyer for their legendary store.
"After more than 21 years we've reached a point in our lives when our ever-growing grandchildren and travel to new places exerts a stronger pull on us than the joys of bookselling," said the married co-owners in a recent letter about their decision to sell the widely beloved bookshop.
Ever dreamed of owning a bookstore? Been a fan, friend, or patron of Mystery Lovers Bookshop? Read on for Gorman and Goldman's news and details about selling their store:
We have decided to give someone else a chance to achieve their dream by seeking a new owner for the bookstore. After more than 21 years we've reached a point in our lives when our ever-growing grandchildren and travel to new places exerts a stronger pull on us than the joys of bookselling.
There are wonderful opportunities for our store that include ebooks, revitalizing the cafe business, expansion of genres, consideration of new sidelines and dozens of others. However, taking advantage of these opportunities requires a new set of younger eyes, hands and backs.
When we consider the assets of our business we immediately see that our staff and our customers are at the top of the list. Our long-time employees, including Margo, Buff, Judi, Kathy, Tanya and Vicki, are with us in working to give MLB a solid future. We hope that you, too, will join with us in finding a new owner and continuing our past success into the future.
Here are some things you can do:
- Interested in owning a bookstore? Call us up.
- Not interested? Pass this along to someone you think would like to be a bookseller. Post it on your Facebook page, tell your friends.
- Keep buying books. From us. It is crucially important that the store continue to do well during this transition. We are not closing the store. We want to say that again--we are not closing, we are seeking a new owner.
If you'd like to see more information about the store, take a look at our Mystery Lovers Bookshop at a Glance page on the website HERE.
Owning a bookstore was a lifelong dream for us and Mystery Lovers Bookshop has fulfilled every aspect of that dream and more. We've met thousands of wonderful people who have enriched our lives in ways beyond counting. We'd like to think that we did that, too, in our own way through events, bookclubs and the love of books.
Thanks for your years of support for us and for Mystery Lovers Bookshop. Now, on to the next 20 years.
Mary Alice and Richard
When I conceived the Page One mystery series, the easiest decision was where to set it: Michigan’s beautiful, yet very remote Upper Peninsula—the U.P.—and the very real town of Escanaba. Having lived in the U.P. for more than 25 years, it was what I knew best, but I also felt this unique place was the ideal setting for all sorts of crimes.
I became an unofficial Yooper (someone who is either born and bred in the U.P. or who has lived through enough winters here to earn the designation) when my family moved to the tiny town of Rapid River at the north end of Lake Michigan where it feeds into Little Bay de Noc.
Coming from the high desert area of Southern California, the move was both a lesson in regional culture and climatology. I grew to appreciate the Yooper accent, a unique blend of Finnish, Welsh, Slavic, and Eastern European sounds that culminate in our most famous saying: “Yah, eh?”
I learned to love the Yooper Scoop, a steel contraption that looks like a snow shovel on steroids and is vital when trying to clear a foot of snow without a gas-powered snowblower.
In writing the Page One series, I have tried to capture the essence of the two characteristics that make this part of country different—its people and topography. Through intrepid newspaper reporter Robin Hamilton, my protagonist, I hope the reader develops a sense of just how special the U.P. is to those of us who call it home.
A hearty, independent bunch, we are also caring and giving. Ask anyone who’s ever been through a tragedy and you’ll hear story after story about strangers and friends alike banding together to help. Every town in the U.P. is small—the largest has 20,000 people—which means it doesn’t take long to get to know everyone.
U.P. has also been blessed with being surrounded on three sides by three of the Great Lakes—Michigan, Huron, and Superior. These lakes are fed by hundreds of rivers and streams that wind through rocky hills, thick forests of pine, birch, and maple, and expansive marshes. All this natural beauty draws painters, photographers, writers, and outdoor-sports enthusiasts to the area year round and creates an energy that is tangible.
It is that beauty and energy that has inspired me as a writer. I began the first draft of Page One: Vanished while watching snowflakes the size of silver dollars flutter to the ground on a December day near the Portage Lake Shipping Canal, which is nestled between the old, yet still vibrant mining towns of Houghton and Hancock.
The book opens with Robin and her best friend from high school vacationing in the Keweenaw Peninsula, a finger of land that juts out into Lake Superior and the most spectacular portion of the U.P. in terms of rugged beauty. Robin comes across an old scrapbook of a girl who went missing at the age of 14 in 1974. Through conversations with friends and coworkers, Robin comes learns of three other cases of missing teenage girls in the decades in between. Then the kidnapper strikes again.
As Robin probes each disappearance, the reader goes on a virtual tour of the western U.P., with stops in such towns as Manistique, Houghton, Ironwood, and my adopted hometown, Rapid River.
By incorporating my favorite places into the books, I’ve made the Page One series a thank-you card of sorts to the place I plan to call home for the rest of my life, and an invitation to all those who’ve never experienced the U.P. firsthand to come visit us.
Page One: Vanished, Nancy Barr, Arbutus Press, May 2007, $16.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
Chris Grabenstein is on a boat
Captain Don Mears welcomes the author aboard.
In my new John Ceepak mystery Whack A Mole, there is a sequence of scenes that takes place out on the ocean in a fishing boat.
Unfortunately, the closest thing we have to fishing boats here in New York City are those rowboats over in Central Park and the radio-controlled sailboats in that pond where Stuart Little, the mouse who sounded like Michael J. Fox, went yachting.
So, I had to get out on the ocean on something besides the Staten Island Ferry. That meant this Manhattan landlubber had to, once again, take a research trip "down the shore." I’d have to soak up some sun, smell fresh, salty air, eat shellfish and chowda, and basically suffer for my art. Or craft. One of those.
Enter Captain Don Mears and Lady Fran Charters near the Barnegat lighthouse on Long Beach Island in New Jersey.
I believe I was Captain Don’s strangest charter all summer.
“How much to go out and not fish?” I asked.
“No fishing?” he asked.
“Nope. No fishing. Just some questions.”
We agreed on the price and his wife (who, in case you haven’t guessed already, is named Fran and happens to be a lovely lady plus a major mystery fan) came along for the ride. While Captain Don, his face weathered and lined by years of going out to fight the sea like Hemingway (only every day, not just on vacation), took the helm up in the tuna tower, outriggers snapping in the breeze (see what you learn when you do research?), his wife and I sat in the comfy “fighting chairs” in the stern hatching diabolical ways one might kill people while deep at sea.
As he plowed through breakers and rolled across waves the size of Buicks, Captain Don told me enough about the gadgets and gizmos he was fiddling with up there in the tuna tower to help me do what fiction writers do best: lie! We dazzle readers with our details and fool them into thinking we actually know what we’re writing about.
The old saw is “write what you know.” Well, thanks to Captain Don and The Lady Fran, I now know my gunwale from my gin pole, my cockpit from my bilge pump. I also know enough about on-board radar, sonar pings, GPS fishing maps, and the Hudson Canyon’s scallop beds to pretend like I know a whole lot more.
The boat scenes become an integral part of the fast-paced plot in Whack a Mole. John Ceepak, the former MP with an unshakeable code of honor, and Danny Boyle, his partner (who, by the way, is now full-time on the Sea Haven P.D. and finally gets to carry a gun) race against the clock to uncover a hidden mole with a twisted code all his own. Without giving too much away, rest assured—part of that mole-hunt takes place out at sea.
To commemorate the already memorable day, I named the fishing boat in Whack a Mole “The Lady Fran.” It’s owned and operated by Ceepak and Danny’s friend Gus Davis, the crusty, retired desk sergeant who, it just so happens, now bears a startling resemblance to Captain Don Mears.
Whack A Mole, Chris Grabenstein, Carroll & Graf, June 2006, $24.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
Rhys Bowen's spy has class
I’m always fascinated by the American fascination with royalty. Why did the colonies fight so hard to get rid of a king, only to spend the next 200 years wishing they had one? Well, maybe the fantasy of royalty is better than the reality.
My new book came into being because my editor had been urging me to write a big, dark standalone. I kept toying with serial killers, child molesters, and terrorists and finally asked myself whether I wanted to spend six months in such company. The answer was a resounding NO. So a silly idea crept into my head. What if my sleuth was a sheltered, upper-class British girl in the 1930s—what if she was a member of the royal family, not allowed to work or go out unchaperoned, and destined to marry some chinless, spineless, buck-toothed and utterly awful European royal. Trying to solve a murder would indeed be a challenge, and fun. I would have a chance to poke fun at the British class system and chuckle to myself as I wrote.
And so Her Royal Spyness was born. However, this is royal family life turned upside down. My character, Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, aka Georgie, is a cousin of King George V of England, but she’s penniless and trying to survive on her own as an ordinary person in London in 1932. She is too far from the line of succession to get any public money. Her father gambled away the last of his fortune. Her brother is saddled with horrendous death duties and can barely keep the Scottish estate running. He certainly can’t afford to go on keeping Georgie after she has come out into society.
At a loose end, she bolts to London and tries living on her own. Not an easy task for one who has never done a thing for herself. How does one light a fire and where does milk come from? So she starts a house cleaning service. Little do the owners of the London mansions know that their furniture is being dusted by the 34th in line to the throne, and that their loo is being cleaned with the bath brush!
Then the queen asks her to act as her spy. It seems the Prince of Wales has met a most unsuitable American woman. Georgie takes all this in her stride, until she finds a body in her bathtub and becomes a target herself.
Like Georgie I have straddled the British class system enough to make me an observer and outsider. My family was respectably professional—my mother was a school principal and my father a research engineer. But my father was self-made, self-educated, and claimed to be a Cockney (although I doubt he could have heard the sound of Bow Bells from where he was born). At school and college I started mingling with the daughters of society. My friend’s brother dated Princess Anne. And then I married into an upper-class family whose royal roots go back to Edward the Third. Suddenly I was meeting cousins with ridiculous nicknames like Fig and Podge. I was visiting relatives who live in stately homes, and I became horribly aware of how important the class system is to British society, even today.
This has become suddenly relevant again with the fuss over Prince William’s girlfriend who was dropped for having a lower-class mother. The British upper class is still remarkably cruel, horribly snobby, and they make sure that those below them never cross class barriers. One can never ascend to the upper class, even today.
Giving Georgie one grandmother who was Queen Victoria’s daughter and one who sold fish in the East End has created the opportunity for my own wicked digs at the British class system, written by one who knows both sides, as Georgie does. When you read the book you’ll laugh, but as you laugh, remember it is all still happening today.
Rhys Bowen is the New York Times Bestselling Author of the Royal Spyness Series, Molly Murphy Mysteries, and Constable Evans. Her latest Royal Spyness mystery is Heirs and Graces (Berkley Hardcover, August 2013).
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
I’ve always been a big fan of Raymond Chandler and his wise-cracking creation, private detective Philip Marlowe, so when the time came for me to write Straits of Fortune I knew I wanted a protagonist whose voice would do for Miami what Marlowe’s had done for Los Angeles back in the ‘40s. It was a tough act to follow to say the least.
The challenge of writing a novel in the first person is similar, I believe, to that of making a movie with a single camera from a single character’s point of view. The hero’s voice has to be engaging enough to capture the reader’s attention and expansive enough to do the story justice. Marlowe was smart, fair, tough, compassionate, cynical and, at times, quite witty. Those were exactly the character traits I wanted my protagonist, Jack Vaughn, to have. What I needed was a man who was smart but not an intellectual; a man who was tough but not a ruffian; a man who was civil but not declawed.
The decision to make Jack a personal trainer was based on my own experience in the health and fitness field. I’ve worked as a trainer myself over the years, and I can tell you that like a good hairdresser, I’ve met people from all walks of life and have heard enough crazy stories to fill a second Bible. I’ve gone through dozens of marriages, divorces, failed businesses, illnesses, addictions, obsessions, neuroses, and even crimes. Each client is a world unto himself and every training session is like a trip to another planet. Stick with a client long enough and a certain degree of trust develops. The line between friend and professional starts to blur and before you know it, you’re part of someone’s life—even if you don’t want to be. This has happened to me on more than one occasion, like the time I was questioned by the police about the whereabouts of a certain client of mine. Apparently, it’s illegal to grow marijuana in your condo, and they were curious about where he had gone. I told the cops the truth: I didn’t know and I didn’t want to know. They caught him eventually, and I ended up sending him money and magazines while he was in prison.
This blurring of lines means that your clients will sometimes make requests of you that have nothing at all to do with lifting weights or running around a track. For instance, a businessman down here in Miami once asked me to follow one of his female employees. He was curious to know why she had to leave work so early each day and where she was going. I should have known better, but I figured it was an easy hundred bucks. Boy was I wrong! The woman took off driving like a maniac, doing 60 in a 30-mile-per-hour zone and weaving through traffic as though she were in an episode of Cops. She didn’t know she was being followed, so I had to assume that she drove this way all the time. I managed to stay with her, and the next day I reported back to my boss where she was going in such a hurry. Home. Who knows? Maybe Brad Pitt was waiting for her, or maybe she had just left something cooking on the stove.
I’ve been asked by clients to act as a bodyguard and once I was even asked to assemble a tricycle for a client’s little boy.
Requests such as these eventually gave me the idea for the plot in Straits of Fortune. In my novel, Jack is offered $100,000 to sink a mysterious white yacht anchored off a former client’s beachfront mansion. There’s a dead man on board and the client wants the evidence buried deep in the ocean. Of course, it was inevitable that I eventually ask myself what I would do if someone made me that kind of offer. A hundred grand is a lot of money, but would I do something that crazy?
In my case, the answer is probably not. After all, what’s the use of having an imagination if not to get your characters to do your dirty work for you?
Straits of Fortune, Anthony Gagliano, Morrow, May 2006, $23.95
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
What do I have in common with a shady museum curator in a small Blue Ridge Mountain town who is beset by rumors, entangled with burglary, and suspected of murder? For starters I was a museum curator in a small Blue Ridge Mountain town.
For seven years the history of Jonesborough, Tennessee’s oldest town, and its museum were in my care. Jonesborough is a gem of Federal and Victorian architecture and home of the International Storytelling Center. It’s a small town full of tales, tall and otherwise, and a place dear to my heart. I dare you to walk down Main Street past the two-room log house where Andrew Jackson studied law while living with Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Taylor and the 13 Taylor children and not marvel. Trail your fingers along the top of a granite upping block and think about that mud hole that opened up in the middle of the road back in 1911. It was so deep a mule stepped in it and drowned before they could pull it out again. Now, after your walk, see if you don’t get the itch to spin your own tales.
That’s what happened to me. I started out normal enough. But then there were the hours spent alone as the sole employee of the museum. Hours archiving antique photographs, hours measuring and numbering clay marbles, embroidered samplers, a dentist’s horrifying instruments. Hours, days, and months conjuring ghosts from the incidental and forgotten things from Jonesborough’s past, and from my own imagination.
Lewis Wilder sprang into my mind one lonely museum morning. He then had the good sense to step into the curator’s position at the fictitious Nolichucky Jack History Museum in an equally fictitious Nolichucky, Tennessee. Thus, my first novel, Wilder Rumors, was on its way.
Wilder liked his new job at the museum immediately. Working with history on a human scale suited his quiet personality and he imagined he could slip into his new small town life just as easily. He thought he had it made, poor guy.
Old time Nolichuckians didn’t welcome him with open arms. They had trust issues with “foreigners,” especially ones reluctant to answer personal questions. Some people whispered behind Wilder’s back about the coincidence of his arrival and the onset of a rash of burglaries. Others raised their eyebrows and mused over the anonymous cash donations suddenly arriving at the museum. Once loose in a small town, rumors like those sprout legs and sprint. Wilder didn’t have a chance at outrunning them. So when the dead body appeared in his proximity, and a witness placed him at the scene of the crime, his idyllic small town life might as well have been a 1911 mud hole because he was in it up to his neck.
My tenure as a small-town museum curator was less stressful. The only time murder flitted through my mind was while giving tours to uninterested middle school students. Otherwise the job was perfect placement for a writer.
Artifacts whisper their tales to catch the imagination. The tiny red leather shoes worn by a child at the turn of the last century; sober, blunt, blacksmith’s tools; impossibly soft, ivory-colored, elbow-length kid leather gloves with their pearl buttons; the long rifle with the notches cut into the walnut stock—while holding these artifacts in my hands, other people’s eyes and memories, other lives, open before me.
I left Tennessee and the museum world several years ago, but Wilder is still the curator in Nolichucky.
Was I as shady a curator, as shady a character, as Lewis Wilder? That might depend on who you talk to when you walk down Main Street in Jonesborough, but I’ll never tell.
Wilder Rumors, Molly MacRae, Five Star, May 2006, $25.99
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #100.
Could it be that the writers of the NBC comedy The Office are closet mystery fans?
Clues have popped up throughout The Office's eight-year run.
The latest was in the episode "After Hours." During a bizarre meeting in the conference room—as if there could be any normal event taking place in the conference room—Darryl Philbin says he feels as if he is "stranded on Shutter Island."
Would nonfans weave in a reference to Dennis Lehane's dark thriller? The scriptwriters must be fans, right?
Darryl, played by Craig Robinson, often is seen with a book and once suggested to his colleagues that they go to a bookstore to pick up women.
In the episode "Local Ad" during the fourth season, manic Michael Scott (Steve Carell) wants to find a celebrity to be in a commercial that will feature the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin. Phyllis Vance (Phyllis Smith) mentions that Sue Grafton is
holding a booksigning at the Steamtown Mall. Michael tells Phyllis to invite Grafton to be in the commercial and not take no for an answer. The encounter doesn't go well, judging by Phyllis' rumpled look when she returns.
While Phyllis is gone, Andy and Creed discuss how "crazy hot" Grafton is. (Grafton's latest Kinsey Millhone novel is V Is for Vengeance.)
There have been other times mystery authors have been mentioned in passing on The Office.
Do you remember any references to mystery authors that have popped up on other TV series?
The Office airs at 9 p.m. EST Thursdays on NBC. Lehane's and Grafton's novels are always in the bookstore.
I admit that for the past few Sundays, I have had a bit of withdrawal from Downton Abbey.
I also had a bit of withdrawal when Dexter and Treme ended their seasons and when The Wire wrapped up its run.
So that will tell you how eclectic my tastes are.
Apparently I am not alone in missing the upstairs/downstairs woes of the Crawleys and their servants and, of course, Dame Maggy Smith, left, as Violet, the stubborn and vocal Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Apparently, I am not the only mystery fiction reader who watches Downton Abbey.
Several viewers—and readers—have been suggesting how mystery fiction icons could easily fit into next season.
For example, on DorothyL, several people suggested a good spin for the start of Season Three.
Perhaps Lord Grantham would learn that the Duke of Denver's younger brother has recovered from his shell shock and might be able to look into the Bates affair.
That younger brother, of course, would be Lord Peter Wimsey.
The Duke of Denver was a fictitious title created by Dorothy Sayers for the family of Lord Peter Wimsey.
Another suggestion was that Isobel Crawley could meet a Belgian refugee who is a former police officer, more than willing to use his "little grey cells" to prove Bates innocent.
That Belgian, of course, would be Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.
Hercule Poirot would certainly add a bit of spice to the series, especially in scenes with the Dowager Countess.
The family could make a trek to St. Mary Mead and encounter Miss Jane Marple.
Although Miss Marple was not a member of the aristocracy or from the landed gentry, Agatha Christie made sure her character was quite at home among them.
Many of Miss Marple's cases brought her upclose and personal with the upper class.
Can you think of any other fictional sleuths who would might lend a hand with Downton Abbey?
Meanwhile, discover some of the authors who write about the pre- and post-World War I era of Downton Abbey. Here's a Mystery Scene blog about authors Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear and Anne Perry.
Photo: Dame Maggy Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham. PBS photo.
Page 105 of 266