How many times have we heard how writing can be therapeutic? That creating fiction—or reading fiction—can get us through some of the worst times of our lives.
The chance to immerse ourselves into the lives of another and to be all wrapped up an engrossing plot that has nothing to do with our own lives, well, there’s a lot of appeal in that.
For Maggie Barbieri, writing was a form of therapy when she battled cancer a few years ago.
Barbieri is the author of the Murder 101 series, a charming, funny set of novels about English professor Alison Bergeron, who teaches at St. Thomas, a college in the Bronx, New York.
The novels include Murder 101 (2006); Extracurricular Activities (2007), Quick Study (2008), Final Exam (2009), Third Degree (2010) and Physical Education (2011). Extra Credit is due out December 2012.
In addition to a perceptive look at academic life, Barbieri’s father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories provide background for her novels.
From 2005 to 2008, smack in the middle of writing her series, Barbieri battled malignant melanoma, not once, but twice. Her outlook was considered dire as her cancer had progressed to Stage III with Stage IV being the deadliest.
With a team of cancer professionals at NYU, Barbieri went through a very rough time in therapy. Through it all, she was focused on her health, her devoted family and her novels, three of which she wrote while undergoing surgery, treatment, and radiation.
“Decides that writing really can save your life,” Barbieri says on her web site, which also includes information about skin cancer.
Writing the Murder 101 novels “helped me get completely out of my own head and escape into another world,” Barbieri said in a story in Good Housekeeping. The magazine published a heartfelt story about Barbieri’s recovery in the April 2011 issue.
Barbieri’s story is an inspiration for all of us, whether we have been through such an illness or known a loved one who has gone through such an experience.
Barbieri is continuing to write about Alison Bergeron, and making new fans with each novel. And even more important, her health seems to be on track.
How many times have we heard how writing can be therapeutic? That creating fiction—or reading fiction—can get us through some of the worst times of our lives.
For years, in between real trips, I enjoy arm-chair traveling with mystery authors.
If I want an extra dose of San Francisco, I turn to Marcia Muller or, if I want an historical view of San Francisco, I seek out Kelli Stanley.
Julie Smith took me to areas of New Orleans I had never seen and new author Joy Castro does the same thing.
For the Florida Keys, I go with James W. Hall. And for Los Angeles, the choices are myriad—Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Denise Hamilton. Jo Nesbo brings Norway to my door. And any number of authors writing for Soho Crime deliver evocative scenes of Europe, England and Ireland.
Fantasy travel thrives in the newly released The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery Agatha Christie edited by Matthew Prichard, her grandson (Harper).
Prichard has compiled Christie’s letters and photographs she took that chronicle her travels around the British Empire during 1922.
The trip took nearly a year with stops in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Hawaii. The trip was part of a trade mission that her husband, Archibald, had been invited to take to promote the British Empire exhibition.
Today we would call this a junket. The trip, according to The Grand Tour, had the following goals: "to produce new sources of wealth by exploiting the raw materials of the Empire; to foster inter-Imperial trade; to open new world markets for Dominican and British products; and to encourage interaction between different cultures and people of the Empire.…"
This was indeed a trip of a lifetime so Christie put her 2-year-old daughter in the care of her sister, packed her bags and went on the trip shortly after her second novel had been published.
Through the photos and letters, The Grand Tour shows a side of Christie most of us readers are just learning about. After all, according to An Autobiography, Christie was one of Britain's first stand-up surfers. She was an avid body boarder, taking up the sport during a 1922 holiday in South Africa. The Grand Tour touches on her surfing hobby and includes several photos, including several taken in Hawaii.
The Grand Tour also puts travel in its historical perspective. While Christie and the others travel in style for the day, nothing on this trip was easy. Certainly not by today’s standards.
2012 marks the 120th anniversary of Christie’s birth. Her work continues to be in style.
We get so caught up in trying to stay on top of the new novels that are published that we seldom get a chance to revisit the old masters.
The authors who came before–Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, and others–laid the foundation on which contemporary authors continue to build.
Boy, that was kinda deep, wasn’t it?
One of my all-time favorite authors who I used to reread regularly is Josephine Tey.
And it’s wonderful that Tey is being introduced to a new generation of readers by British author Nicola Upson who made the author as the heroine of her series. The latest Two for Sorrow has Tey involved with a killer as she researches a novel based on a decades-old crime. Upson takes the classic detective and updates her for a contemporary audience.
Upson’s series is quite good as are the original Tey novels.
Josephine Tey is one of the pseudonyms of Scottish author Elizabeth Mackintosh.
I am by no means an expert on Tey – many of you readers know much more. She wrote dozens of plays under the name of Gordon Daviot, but only four were produced during her lifetime. Her best known was Richard of Bordeaux, which ran for 14 months in England and made a name for a young John Gielgud, who was its leading man and director.
So much has been made of Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time, the last of her books published in her lifetime. In The Daughter of Time, her leading character Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital. As a diversion, he has his friends help with research so he can figure out if King Richard III of England murdered his nephews, those infamous princes in the Tower of London, back in the 1480s.
OK, I know it was a different time–1951–when The Daughter of Time was published and maybe that debate about King Richard III had more bearing than it does now. At least to me. While I am fascinated by history and am a fan of historical mysteries, The Daughter of Time is not my favorite Tey novel.
For me it was Brat Farrar, published in 1949. As someone who grew up on a farm seven miles from my small hometown of 5,000, I couldn’t really relate to this family of aristocrats.
But what struck me when I read this book when I was about 12 years old was the family made their living breeding, selling and training horses and giving riding lessons. I had just gotten my first horse about that time and the idea of riding all day, of making your living from a horse farm sounded like heaven. That my father was a farmer and made his living off the land also has a resonated with me. That Brat Farrar was an outsider also hit a chord. (I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read it.)
Economically and culturally, Ashby family and mine were miles apart. But on another level, we could have lived next door.
S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep is one of those novels that caught me by surprise.
I almost didn’t review it because I had just reviewed three British novels and I strive for balance.
But Watson’s novel was immediately mesmerizing as he tackled the power of memories while writing about a woman with no memory. Christine Lucas not only has lost any recollections about her past, but her lack of memory has robbed her of any feelings.
Each day, Christine wakes up not knowing who she is or who the man is next to her. She believes she is 27 years old, but beyond that she has no immediate clue to her past. Each day she is stunned to see in the mirror the face of a 47-year-old and to learn that she has been married for 22 years to Ben. Each morning, before he leaves for work as a teacher, Ben explains to Christine that she lost her memory 20 years before in an accident.
Or did she?
To try to remember, Christine writes down everything that has happened to her, and these journals are her only connection with the past. Because each day, her memory is wiped clean. But those journals also include a chilling note: “Don’t trust Ben.”
In my review of Before I Go to Sleep that ran in the Sun Sentinel and other newspapers, I said: “Watson bends his intense psychological thriller in myriad ways, making the reader simultaneously empathize and doubt each character. Ben appears to be a devoted husband; [her doctor] appears to be a compassionate physician; Christine appears not to know of her past.
“Each snippet of Christine’s memory appears to be a victory as well as a setback. Recovering her memory may be more frightening than she imagines. At each turn, clues to Christine’s past and present spin in different directions, leading to a shocking finale,” I wrote in the review in the Sun Sentinel.
And here is the review that ran in Mystery Scene magazine.
Before the book hit the stands, Before I Go to Sleep already had been sold to become a film produced by Ridley Scott. It will star Nicole Kidman as Christine and Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) as her psychiatrist. Rowan Joffe will direct. The film version of Before I Go to Sleep is scheduled for release during 2013.
The death in January 2012 of Reginald Hill, at the age of 75, has robbed crime fiction of a towering figure, one of the outstanding British mystery writers of the past half century.
Reg—as he was universally known—will be remembered most widely for his series of novels featuring “Mid-Yorkshire’s finest,” that splendid odd couple of cops, Andy Dalziel and Peter Pascoe. They made their debut in Reg’s first published novel, A Clubbable Woman, which was published under the Collins Crime Club imprint back in 1970. Incidentally, throughout his long career, Reg remained with the same publisher and same literary agent. He was also married to Pat (her maiden name was Patricia Ruell, hence one of his pseudonyms, Patrick Ruell) for more than 50 years. Nobody could deny that Reg epitomized loyalty.
Reg’s mother was a detective fiction fan, but in his early days, most British crime writers were based in London and the Home Counties. He came from a perhaps unglamorous background—his father was a professional soccer player for Hartlepool United long before footballers became highly paid—but hard work and a sharp mind took him to St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, and he later pursued a career in academe. He tried his hand at poetry, and one or two of his poems reflected his interest in crime, before he tackled a novel and embarked on a path as a pioneer of realistic, high-quality crime fiction written, and usually set, in the North of England.
Fell of Dark was a thriller set in the Lake District which he wrote before A Clubbable Woman, although it was published after that book. From then on, Reg got into a rhythm, alternating between his main series and other books, and he believed strongly that varying his approach in this way helped keep his series fresh. Inevitably, the success of the Dalziel and Pascoe books led to pressure to produce them one after another, but he did his best to resist the conveyor belt approach—not because he was dissatisfied with the series, but because he was determined not to compromise his standards and slip into a formula.
He was astonishingly prolific, producing no fewer than 17 novels in his first decade as a published writer, while holding down a job as a lecturer in a college that provided him with background for the second Dalziel and Pascoe book, An Advancement of Learning. The switch of settings (their first appearance concerned a case involving a Yorkshire rugby club, their second the comparatively genteel academic world) reflected the contrast in the two men’s natures. Dalziel was rough and ready, coarse and fat—yet a brilliant detective who was also capable of great wisdom. Pascoe was the sensitive liberal, married with a small child, and sometimes shocked by his boss’ behavior and attitudes. Reg readily acknowledged that, up to a point, the characters reflected contrasting strands of his own personality. He was an erudite and cultured man, but he was also keen on rugby and the outdoor life, and enjoyed a belly laugh as much as a subtle shaft of wit.
I first met Reg and Pat at the inaugural meeting of the Northern Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association, at Boroughbridge in North Yorkshire in 1987. At that time, I was working on my first novel, and was eligible for membership only on the strength of nonfiction that I’d published. I didn’t know any crime writers, and approached that meeting with much trepidation. But I was lucky: the people there could not have been kinder to me. It was a small gathering—Reg dubbed us “the few”—but it included not only Reg and Pat, but another doyen of the genre who would, like Reg, go on to win the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger, Robert Barnard, and his wife Louise, as well as Peter Walker, whose books sourced Heartbeat, one of the most commercially successful British television series of the past 20 years, and Peter and Margaret Lewis, distinguished biographers of Eric Ambler and Ngaio Marsh, respectively. All very memorable and exciting for a writer (and passionate crime fan) at the start of his career.
From then on, Reg offered me a great deal of encouragement. He named me in a magazine interview as the most promising new writer he’d come across, and he readily agreed to contribute a short story to the first anthology that I edited. This was Northern Blood, which members of the Northern Chapter put together in 1992. We shared a love of short stories, and Reg contributed to many of the anthologies that I edited in later years. “On the Psychiatrist’s Couch,” included in Whydunit?, won the CWA Short Story Dagger, an award he’d won once before. “Game of Dog,” another superb tale, was his contribution to the CWA’s Golden Jubilee anthology, and he allowed me to reprint the brilliant “The Rio de Janeiro Paper” in Crime in the City. Most recently, he wrote the utterly absorbing “Where Are All the Naughty People?” for Original Sins. Despite the many calls on his time, he never once failed to respond to a request for a story—not offering something competent yet ordinary pulled from the bottom drawer, but stories that were original and enormously enjoyable. He also found time to write a wonderful introduction to Where Do You Find Your Ideas?, my own gathering of short stories.
His friends and fans were naturally delighted when news came that Dalziel and Pascoe would be seen on television. The books were to be brought to the small screen by Yorkshire Television, which seemed ideal. Anticipation turned to anxiety when it emerged that the comedians Hale and Pace had been cast in the lead roles. Many would say that, even as comedians, Hale and Pace were not really in the first division—possibly not in the second division, either. And as actors….
At a conference in Brighton when the first episode was being made, the Hills confided their doubts. But still one hoped that the adaptation of A Pinch of Snuff—a story with an unorthodox and elaborate plot—would be a success.
The Northern Chapter of the CWA has, ever since that very first meeting, been a convivial and cohesive group, and as well as regular lunches, members have often organized weekend get-togethers in pleasant parts of the region. Reg and Pat were responsible for setting up some of the best of them and I vividly remember a weekend at a Windermere hotel which coincided with the first showing (on a Saturday evening but scheduled at a suspiciously late hour) of the Hale and Pace interpretation of A Pinch of Snuff. Reg made it quite clear that we should all be drinking with him at the bar rather than sneaking up to our rooms and watching the show on the telly. But when we finally returned home and saw the recordings, our worst fears were realized.
Luckily, Reg managed to terminate his contract with Yorkshire Television, and entered into a new deal with the BBC, who engaged high-quality scriptwriters such as Alan Plater and Malcolm Bradbury and cast two fine actors, Warren Clarke and Colin Buchanan, in the key roles. Reg invited me to the screening for the press at the Royal Society for the Arts in London, and I took the day off work to travel down: the occasion was great fun, and it was immediately obvious that the BBC had got the characters and story lines right. The rest is history: Dalziel and Pascoe became a fixture on British screens for years and also enjoyed popularity overseas. But this success, very welcome as it was, did not affect Reg. He regarded what happened on the TV as wholly separate from what happened in the books and he wanted to focus on continuing to write the best novels of which he was capable without distraction. Much as he admired the actors’ work, he once said he’d stopped watching the later series, which were no longer based on his own books.
Dalziel and Pascoe, the second attempt at a British TV
series based on HIll’s novels, was a solid hit. It first
aired in 1996 and ran for 12 series. Above: Dalziel
(Warren Clarke) and Pascoe (Colin Buchanan). © BBC
As a result of this commitment to continuing quality in his own work, and an absolute refusal to compromise on standards, his books became even better as the years passed. He experimented regularly, at one point sending Dalziel and Pascoe into space in One Small Step, as well as belatedly recording their very first encounter in “The Last National Serviceman.” Bones and Silence was a worthy winner of the CWA Gold Dagger but some of his other titles were equally impressive. The stunningly clever Dialogues of the Dead is one example, while its followup, Death’s Jest-Book, is another. Recalled to Life, On Beulah Height, and Pictures of Perfection are among my other favorites. One of his books—I cannot name it for fear of spoiling the pleasure of those who haven’t read it yet—tells you the name of the culprit in the first paragraph. But the clue is so ingeniously concealed that it would take an especially astute reader to spot it. Reg Hill believed in strong and intricate plotting, and at times his cleverness would have had Agatha Christie gasping in admiration.
His non-series books are sometimes underestimated, and this is a pity. The Only Game is a gripping thriller with a cunning plot twist, while The Stranger House was set in the Lake District, an area he and Pat loved and whose character and charm he evoked with his customary skill. After Reg retired from the world of education to concentrate on writing full-time, he and Pat had moved from Yorkshire to Ravenglass on the west coast of Cumbria, and Reg would regularly tramp across the fells.
He made terrific use of his knowledge of Cumbria in the last book he published before he died. The Woodcutter is one of his finest books, and what is so remarkable given that Reg was then well into his seventies, and had published about four dozen novels, is its energy and power. The story of the rise, fall, and rise again of the formidable Wolf Hadda has echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo, but with a difference. As ever, this zestful thriller is packed with the witty lines that were the author’s hallmark.
Reg was appointed Chair of the CWA Diamond Dagger Nominations Sub-Committee a few years after he won that most prestigious award. He asked me to join him and I soon discovered that it was a committee of just two. Reg didn’t really believe in committees and endless debates that never reach a conclusion, and as I didn’t either, all went very smoothly. We found the task one on which we could reach an amiable consensus each year, as a prelude to a long conversation about writing and life in general. I treasure the memory of those discussions. It was always fun, as well as an education, to talk to Reg.
I mentioned his generosity and a couple of instances spring to mind from the last two occasions we spent much time together over the past couple of years. We had lunch during the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival with a major publisher who was interested in revamping the CWA anthology and wanted Reg to be named as editor. He said he wouldn’t do it unless he and I could do it jointly and that I received the same credit as him—despite the fact that, of course, my name was much less of a draw than his. And then, the last time we had dinner together as members of the Detection Club he mentioned that he’d been approached by a TV production company who wanted him to help them with a series set in the Lakes. He told them he wasn’t interested but recommended that they talk to me about adapting my books for television. And so they did. Even though those discussions haven’t come to anything as yet, I will always appreciate that act of kindness. Typical of Reg Hill: a fine person, as well as a fine writer.
A REGINALD HILL READING LIST
Dalziel & Pascoe Novels
A Clubbable Woman (1970)*
An Advancement of Learning (1971)
Ruling Passion (1973)
An April Shroud (1975)
A Pinch of Snuff (1978)
A Killing Kindness (1980)
Exit Lines (1984)
Child’s Play (1987)
Under World (1988)
Bones and Silence (1990)
One Small Step (1990), novella
Recalled to Life (1992)
Pictures of Perfection (1994)
The Wood Beyond (1995)
Asking for the Moon (1996), ss
On Beulah Height (1998)
Arms and the Women (1999)
Dialogues of the Dead (2002)
Death’s Jest-Book (2003)
Good Morning Midnight (2004)
The Death of Dalziel (2007), US: Death Comes for the Fat Man
A Cure for All Diseases (2008), US: The Price of Butcher’s Meat
Midnight Fugue (2009)
Final series novel (2013)
Joe Sixsmith Novels
Blood Sympathy (1993)
Born Guilty (1995)
Killing the Lawyers (1997)
Singing the Sadness (1999)
The Roar of the Butterflies (2008)
Other Crime Novels
Fell of Dark (1971)
A Fairly Dangerous Thing (1972)
A Very Good Hater (1974)
Another Death in Venice (1976)
The Spy’s Wife (1980)
Who Guards a Prince? (1982)
Traitor’s Blood (1983)
Guardians of the Prince (1983)
No Man’s Land (1985)
The Collaborators (1987)
The Stranger House (2005)
The Woodcutter (2010)
Writing as Patrick Ruell
The Castle of the Demon (1971), aka The Turning of the Tide
Red Christmas (1972)
Death Takes the Low Road (1974), aka The Low Road
Beyond the Bone (1975), aka Urn Burial
The Long Kill (1986)
Death of A Dormouse (1987)
Dream of Darkness (1989)
The Only Game (1991)
Writing as Dick Morland
Heart Clock (1973), aka Matlock’s System
Albion! Albion! (1974), aka Singleton’s Law
Writing as Charles Underhill
Captain Fantom (1978)
The Forging of Fantom (1978)
Pascoe’s Ghost: And Other Brief Chronicles of Crime (1979)
There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union (1987)
Brother’s Keeper (1992)
*Dates are UK publication
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Spring Issue #124.
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Sorry no PO Boxes. Incomplete entries will be deleted.
One can search the entire annals of crime and mystery fiction and find no lead character as unpleasant, as morally ambiguous, or as downright disturbing as the "Mystery Man of New York,” Randolph Mason.
Can’t recall Randolph Mason?
Like his namesake Perry, Randolph Mason is a brilliant defense attorney. Unlike Erle Stanley Gardner’s courtroom hero, though, he is an unscrupulous, antisocial, abusive, and amoral man who is not only hated and feared by his peers and opponents, but is similarly regarded by his own clients, whom he regularly berates. Physically ugly, with a sneering face that alternately reflects fearlessness, cunning, or brutality, depending upon the angle from which it is seen, Mason is known as “the Man of Last Resort” because of his genius for finding loopholes within the law through which his guilty-as-sin clients can crawl to freedom.
Such a character is startling enough in a world where readers have grown accustomed to protagonists who battle as many personal demons as the antagonists, while watching on television the antics of today’s real-life celebrity defense attorneys, who play more to the media than the bench. But the shocking truth about Randolph Mason is that he first appeared in print over one hundred years ago.
Randolph Mason was the first popular creation of a criminal and corporate lawyer-turned-writer named Melville Davisson Post (1869-1930). While virtually forgotten today, Post was a highly regarded crime writer of the era, so much so that no less an authority than Anthony Boucher proclaimed his “Uncle Abner” stories, featuring a Virginian sage whose last name was as elusive as Lt. Columbo’s first, to be “the best American detective short stories since Poe.”
Mason’s first appearance was in the 1896 volume The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, which immediately gained notoriety because of one particular story: “The Corpus Delicti,” which remains after all these years one of the most cynically gruesome tales ever penned by a mainstream author. In “Corpus Delicti,” Mason’s client is Richard Warren, a murderer and impostor who has killed a wealthy man in order to steal both his identity and his wife. That woman, however, is threatening to expose him on the eve of his marriage to another. Upon consultation, Mason tells Warren that the solution to his problem is quite simple: he must kill the troublesome wife. But to escape punishment he must dismember the woman’s body and then dissolve the pieces in a chemical solution in the bathtub! Mason callously assures Warren that if he follows his instructions to the letter, the law will not be able to touch him.
Warren does so, reducing his former common-law wife to “only a swimming mass in the tub,” and based on evidence of overheard threats, bloody clothes, a knife, and even a near-confession, he is arrested for the crime. The prosecution’s case is seen as a virtual slam dunk until Mason asks the state to produce the body of the victim, which of course, it cannot. The defense attorney reminds the court that, under the current law, a man cannot be convicted of murder if there is no evidence of a body. The irate judge has no choice but to set the two-time killer free so he can happily marry his beautiful new wife (who, one hopes, has better luck than the prior one).
Outrage over “The Corpus Delicti” made The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason, in Post’s own words, “a dangerous book.” But there was method to the author’s callousness. Based on his experience as an attorney, Post believed many of the laws of the land to be flawed and riddled with holes. He furthermore felt that these flaws could only be corrected through public exposure, so by creating Randolph Mason he was offering the reading public an example of the kind of scoundrel that should be confounded at all costs. “Against these [attorneys] the average man of affairs can defend himself but poorly,” Post wrote. “He may be warned, however, and the author will have accomplished his purpose if he succeeds in identifying the black flag of such pirate crafts.”
Post’s strange scheme paid off: “The Corpus Delicti” is said to have prompted actual reform in the law regarding evidence in a murder case.
Even though none of the other stories in The Strange Schemes of Randolph Mason are as shocking or gruesome as “The Corpus Delicti,” they all depict a protagonist fighting a losing battle against insanity and struggling for his mortal soul. In one story, “The Men of the Jimmy,” a judge describes Mason as “a master mind moved by Satanic impulse.” By the time of another story, “The Animus Furandi,” Mason is a broken man, having failed in a major case involving the French syndicate, as well as a broke one, having lost his wealth. The closest thing to a friend in the world is his loyal secretary, Courtland Parks, a melancholy clerk who tries to build his ruined employer back up by securing clients.
Mason’s illness is even more pronounced in the second volume of stories, Man of Last Resort, or The Clients of Randolph Mason (1897). The lawyer only makes token appearances in these tales and when he does surface, he is depicted as ailing, weak, and old-looking, even though he is in only in his mid-40s. What he lacks in page count, however, Mason more than makes up with vitriolic behavior. In the story “Mrs. Van Bartan,” for instance, the lawyer is so abusive to his client, who likens him to the devil, that he nearly drives her away. Mason is completely absent from the volume’s final story, “The Rule Against Carper,” but is said by a doctor to be so deeply in the grips of mania that not even two hypodermics of morphine can stop his raving.
After Clients, Randolph Mason disappeared for more than a decade, and in that time Post seems to have decided that he had pushed his character as deeply into hell as was possible, because when Mason finally did return in 1908, in a new collection of stories titled Corrector of Destinies, he was a changed man. While still gruff and impatient, the reformed Randolph Mason had conquered his mania and had not only developed a moral code, but had managed to acquire some manners. This Mason was now a righter of wrongs and an avenger of injustice, more of an early Simon Templar than a latter-day Simon Legree. A measure of Mason’s change of heart can be found in the story “The Pennsylvania Pirate,” in which he turns the tables on a con man who is trying to cheat the owners of oil-rich property out of their land. Mason goes so far as to rebuke the con man’s attorney for even thinking of filing a shady lawsuit. “Such a suit would be founded on a moral wrong,” Mason tells him. “If the law permitted this wrong, would your conscience permit it?” This is a far cry from the man who once declared, “The word ‘moral’ is a purely metaphysical symbol.”
The most interesting thing about the new Randolph Mason is his decidedly Holmesian demeanor (though he did have a brief Sherlock-esque moment in the novella “Once in Jeopardy,” from The Clients of Randolph Mason, in which he barked to a client: “Give me the facts just as they occurred. You may reserve your melodrama for purposes of copyright”). In Corrector of Destinies Mason is back on his feet financially and conducting business out of a run-down mansion on Broadway, near Wall Street, which was willed to him by a former client. He shares the house with two Italian servants: a man named Pietro, whom Mason actually likes, and Pietro’s wife Francesca.
The voice of the stories has changed as well in the later volume. Whereas there was no official narrator of the earlier Mason tales, in Corrector of Destinies Mason’s exploits are faithfully recorded and recounted by Courtland Parks, who has similarly undergone a personality transformation from the somber, resigned man of the earlier stories to a gregarious New York socialite. Parks is now less a secretary than a general assistant and legman; something of a cross between Dr. Watson and a prototype of Nero Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin. One more Sherlockian parallel can be found in the story “The Intriguer,” which chronicles how all of Mason’s careful plotting was completely undone by a clever and strong-willed woman—shades of Irene Adler!
After Corrector of Destinies, Post abandoned Mason altogether and concentrated instead on his Uncle Abner series for the Saturday Evening Post and a separate series featuring Sir Henry Marquis, “the sleuth of St. James Square.” But the Mystery Man of New York remains a truly fascinating, if rather frightening, character, and even though Post’s stories have long been out of print, any reader of today who is seeking a rare and unconventional peek into the darker side of the human psyche, circa 1900, would be well served by finding a copy of the strange adventures of Randolph Mason.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #91.
A book of short stories that define modern detective fiction—the one that started it all.
When Kate asked me to write the initial column of this new feature I thought hard about which first edition in my collection to choose for discussion. The core of my collection comes from the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list: mystery/detective books published from 1748 to 1952 recognized for their importance historically, developmentally, or simply as great stories. The rest of my collection comes from the Queen’s Quorum volumes, Edgar winners, and favorite single author collections. Among these is no lack of important books in the genre including signed copies, personal inscriptions to me by the author, and a number of obscure but historically significant titles
In deciding which was my favorite I started with the idea to draw up a top ten list. Would it include my first collecting purchase and still a favorite to read: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes? How about In a Lonely Place, which Dorothy B. Hughes inscribed to me almost 30 years ago relating her conversation with Humphrey Bogart about his role in the movie version? What about the Ellery Queen (Fred Dannay) inscription, the British proof of a Dorothy Sayers masterpiece, or the signed Milne or Fleming? Of course, one must include the first Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, and Mike Hammer. Perhaps I should just forget the list and choose The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep? This process was not getting me to a decision. All are favorites and highly prized copies, even with their time-imposed physical faults. Purchased years ago when they were affordable, each is now nicely tucked away in the bank for safekeeping.
No, they would have to wait for another time. It had to be the book.
I selected a book of short stories that define modern detective fiction, the one that started it all—Tales by Edgar Allan Poe. Peter Stern, the dean of American book dealers specializing in detective and mystery fiction, laid this slim, rebound volume in my hand many years ago and said, “Take this, it is the cornerstone of any mystery fiction collection.” More than reasonably priced at the time, it turned out to be a real bargain. As with many beloved books obtained over the years, I certainly could not hope to afford one today.
Poe’s Tales is an unassuming little book. My copy is rebound in brown morocco, but it is a first edition, first printing, with the elusive half title. Published in wrappers by Wiley and Putnam in Philadelphia in 1845, a copy in the form it originally appeared is virtually unobtainable today. rebound copies, however, do come to light once in a great while. Coincidently, Peter Stern just listed a copy bound together with a first edition of The Raven for $37,500. A rebound copy by itself would have to bring about half that.
Earlier books did contain hints of what Poe would someday invent: Voltaire’s Zadig, the 17th-century Chinese narrations of the cases of famous imperial magistrates, and Vidocq’s embellished Memoirs, to name a few. However, no other work compares to the ingenious stories in Tales: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Murder of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter.” Just holding this rare gem produces a tingling sensation, along with reverent and appreciative thoughts of those remarkable stories of “ratiocination” and of their brilliant, yet tortured creator. No book is as important to the genre as this one. It has spawned so many skillful followers, and produced 160 years of pleasure for millions of readers.
Sincere thanks to Kate and Brian for installing this new feature in a magazine already loved by readers and bibliophiles alike. It is a pleasure to be able to share something so personally enthralling with others who have this collecting addiction.
by Edgar Allan Poe
New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1845 first edition, first printing. Bound in twentieth-century brown morocco. Gilt stamping on spine. Half title and 18 pages of terminal ads. Foxing; title page professionally repaired; otherwise fine.
Estimated value: $17,500
Barry Zeman is an authority on the history of the mystery and mystery book collecting.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #93.
Alfred Hitchcock has never been hotter.
His 1958 masterpiece Vertigo has been named the No. 1 film of all time by Britain’s Sight & Sound poll, bumping off perennial favorite Citizen Kane.
Hitchcock himself has been the subject of two bio-pics – HBO’s dreadful The Girl, about the filming of The Birds and Marnie, and now the highly entertaining, often funny Hitchcock.
Hitchcock, which opens Nov. 23 in Los Angeles and New York markets and in general release on Dec. 7, is, on the surface, about the making of Psycho and the controversy surrounding the film.
But Hitchcock also is the story of Alma Reville Hitchcock, who was as much of a partner in her husband’s work as well as being his devoted but often frustrated spouse; of Hitchcock’s demons and fears that always threatened to overwhelm him; and of a moment in film history when audiences really could expect the unexpected.
Hitchcock was, to say the least, an odd person, as shown in Donald Spoto’s 1999 biography and in The Girl, directed by Julian Jarrold. Controlling, vengeful, fearful, obsessive, witty, voyeuristic were just a few of his personality quirks, and quite possibly his better traits.
But while Spoto and Jarrold emphasized the negative, Hitchcock shows a more three-dimensional man, a director who made nearly flawless films; who was capable of ruining—and making—an actor’s career and who had the insight to perfectly cast his enthralling movies.
Credit Hitchcock’s director Sacha Gervasi, making his debut, as well as the brilliant performances by Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as his wife, Alma.
The superb acting and efficient directing completely immerse the audience in this enthralling tale about a unique couple and the making of a landmark movie. Hitchcock is based on the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello.
Hitchcock opens with the director in a gloomy mood having just seen some of his greatest commercial successes with the 1959 North by Northwest and the long-running television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
But you’re only as good as your next success and Hitch, as he prefers to be called in one of the film’s ongoing jokes, has no idea what that will be. Nothing excites him; he’s just passed on Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale as “more of the same spy stuff;” and, at 60, he’s mad that the studio and others see him as old.
Hitch is the definition of eating your emotions as he indulges in late-night refrigerator raids of rich food and wine that would feed a family. His wife Alma wants him to lose weight.
The director finally finds inspiration in the oddest of places – Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho based on the true story of Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. The novel’s sense of the macabre and Gein’s obsessive nature appeal to Hitch. But he alone believes in the project.
The novel is shocking to 1959 sensibilities and overtly bloody. His agent doesn’t want him to do it and certainly not the head of Paramount Studio, so Hitch does the unthinkable—he pays for the project himself. The couple puts their Bel-Air home on the line to foot the entire $800,000 movie, a sum that might buy one or two days of filming today.
While the making of Psycho forms the plot’s foundation, the heart of Hitchcock is the relationship between Hitch and Alma.
Unlike The Girl which made Alma out to be a passive, meek voyeur, Hitchcock shows Alma to be the director’s true partner, a strong woman quite aware of everything going on around her. Alma often was credited as a screenwriter and always worked as a story adviser and editor for Hitch as well as sitting in on casting. But Alma also has grown weary of always being in the background and of Hitch’s fantasies about his blond stars. When Alma starts to work on her own script, Hitch is pushed to his limits.
Anthony Hopkins gives more than his usual spot-on performance as Alfred Hitchcock. Nearly unrecognizable under the expert make-up job, Hopkins inhabits the director’s heart and soul, showing a deeply flawed, yet brilliant man whose greatest battle is not with the conservative studios or the “cool blondes” but with himself and his obsessions.
As good as Hopkins is, Mirren steals every scene with her calm controlled acting and her mesmerizing characterization of Alma. Although she doesn’t physically resemble Alma, Mirren shows how the director’s wife must have had a spine of steel and abundant compassion that allowed the couple to survive in Hollywood.
Both Mirren and Hopkins give performances worthy of Oscar nominations.
Scarlett Johansson shimmers and shines as Janet Leigh who sees Psycho as a breakout film, but has no idea what she is getting into. Johansson’s Leigh comes off as an exceedingly nice woman, devoted to her career but in love with her family. That Hitch meets her when she already is married to Tony Curtis and the mother of two little girls saves her from Hitch’s more prurient obsessions.
That wasn’t the case with Vera Miles, quietly and beautifully played by Jessica Biel. Hitch proclaimed Miles to be “the new Grace Kelly,” put her under personal contract and cast her opposite Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. Miles was to have been the lead in Vertigo, but her pregnancy caused too many delays and opened the door for Kim Novak. Hitch never forgave that Miles choose motherhood and her husband over stardom, which is made painfully obvious in Hitchcock.
The rest of the casting is equally impressive, each giving flawless performances. Toni Collette excels as Peggy Robertson, Hitch’s loyal secretary/assistant. James D’Arcy illustrates the uncertainness and nervous energy that earned Anthony Perkins his role of Norman Bates.
Danny Huston is his usual wonderfully smarmy self as ambitious scriptwriter Whitfield Cook, who had contributed to the scripts of Hitchcock's Stage Fright and Strangers on a Train. But Gein’s (a creepy Michael Wincott) frequent appearances to Hitch are unnecessary and bog down an otherwise solid movie.
While obsessive behavior and a serial killer make for good drama, Hitchcockalso is full of droll wit, courtesy of Hitch’s self-deprecating humor and his macabre comedy. The humor and the drama are perfectly balanced with neither overshadowing the other.
In addition to the Hitchcocks’ relationship, Hitchcock also is a movie about the making of a movie. Like the brilliant 1992 The Player, Hitchcock manages to make the behind the scenes machinations of studio politics, censorship, scriptwriting and filming exciting. While Paramount Studios reluctantly honored its obligation to release the film, the studio tried to squash Psycho by showing the “horror movie claptrap” in only two movie houses.
But Hitch also was a master of marketing and knew how to create a buzz by making something forbidden and exclusive. One of the most intriguing and funny aspects of Hitchcock is how he devised a booklet telling movie theater owners how to show Psycho, that no one would be admitted after the movie started and that cops should be hired to calm the crowds. Hitch’s literal orchestration of this humorously brings in the audiences by the droves.
The only thing missing from Hitchcock are actual scenes from Psycho, but legal restrictions prevented any actual footage from being used.
Still, Hitchcock wonderfully shows us what all the fuss was about and will make audiences want to see the original Psycho again. That of course would be the one with Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. Please, skip the dreadful 1998 version with Anne Heche and Vince Vaughn.
Hitch had nothing to do with that remake, and neither should you.
PHOTOS: From top, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren; Hopkins, Johansson and James D’Arcy; Mirren and Hopkins; Hopkins; Hopkins, Johansson and D’Arcy; Jessica Biel
Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight
Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content and thematic material.
Rhys Bowen on Kenneth Grahame, Nicole Mones, and her own sixth book The Twelve Clues of Christmas.
For someone with a small appetite it’s strange that I absolutely love to read about food. I don’t mean cook books—they imply that I might have to actually attempt to make the dishes in question. I mean meals that are part of novels. I love to pretend I’m part of long banquets at stately homes, to smell the wood smoke of freshly caught trout grilled over a campfire, even to sit in a Bedouin tent and try to imagine being presented with the sheep’s eye as the prized delicacy. I don’t think I could manage to swallow it!
Two books that come to mind immediately in this category are the children’s favorite, The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, and The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. The picnic scene in the former is one that I have longed to recreate in real life and never quite succeeded. The rat’s description of what’s in the picnic basket—cold ham, cold tongue, cold beef, pickled gherkins, salad, french rolls, cress sandwiches, potted meat, ginger beer—sounds like perfection to me. I think picnics are one of my favorite meals, sprawling on a rug in an idyllic setting and lazily munching on another cold shrimp or bunch of grapes.
The Last Chinese Chef centers around a culinary Olympics in China, held at the same time as the real Olympic Games. Four chefs are chosen to compete, one of them the descendent of the chef of the last emperor whose family have memorized recipes when all books were destroyed during the cultural revolution. We see not only the thought process behind the intricate preparation of Chinese food but the whole ritual of food as part of society (and why we Americans don’t get it).
The books in my Royal Spyness series usually feature lack of food. It’s the Great Depression in England. Lady Georgie is penniless and trying to survive alone (and has never learned to cook anything). Her sister-in-law is penny pinching, so most of the meals described are miserable affairs. But in this, the sixth book, called The Twelve Clues of Christmas, I have been able to indulge my senses in a wonderful series of meals at an English manor house in Devonshire. Cream teas to start with—warm scones served with strawberry jam and clotted cream. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, partridge in rich wine gravy, game pies, hot mince pies, and Cornish pasties after the carol singing and all those calorie-laden desserts I still yearn for—culminating in the Christmas banquet itself: with a giant turkey and chestnut stuffing as the centerpiece and to follow the flaming Christmas pudding full of silver charms, each of which have a meaning. If you want to know what they mean, you’ll have to read the book.
I don’t usually read my own books after they have come out but I may well sneak a peek at this one to relive that spirit of Christmas past. Maybe I have found the perfect diet!
Rhys Bowen writes two series of historical mystery novels: The Molly Murphy mysteries set in 1900s New York City and the lighter Royal Spyness mysteries, featuring a penniless minor royal in 1930s England. Her books have won numerous awards, including two Agathas and two Anthonies, and have made the New York Times bestseller list. She is a transplanted Brit who now divides her time between California and Arizona.
Author website: www.rhysbowen.com
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews December 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.
by Joe McGinniss
Signet, September 2012, $9.99
A Wilderness of Error
by Errol Morris
Penguin, Sept. 2012, $29.95
Mystery lovers aren’t always big readers of true crime, but here are two true-crime books that pack an astonishing one-two punch: Fatal Vision, by Joe McGinniss, is pretty much a stone-cold classic of the genre, and A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, by Errol Morris, is a bold new work that pretty much kicks the former to the curb.
Joe McGinniss’ 1983 bestseller Fatal Vision was the disturbing story of a handsome former Green Beret, doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of the brutal murder of his pregnant wife and two small children; murders he claims were committed by a band of Charles Manson–like hippies.McGinniss, originally invited by the imprisoned MacDonald to write the “true” story, eventually became convinced that the doctor was, indeed, guilty. Now, 30-odd years later, award-winning documentary filmmaker and former private eye Errol “The Thin Blue Line” Morris comes along and suggests that MacDonald may, in fact, not be guilty, that he was almost certainly railroaded, and that McGinniss’ book was, to be charitable, flawed. You may read this book and still end up believing justice was served, but you’ll almost certainly also come to the conclusion—after Morris has served up a long litany of errors, omissions, and negligence—that justice was not served well. For anyone interested in the law, justice, or that most nebulous of all concepts, the Truth, these are highly recommended and essential reading.
by Martin Rouston
Seagull Books, September 2012, $17.00
English majors, take note! The Wasteland is the long-overdue reprint of British cartoonist Martin Rowson’s classic 1990 send-up of/tribute to T.S. Eliot’s literary masterpiece. It's just the thing to bend your world over; a surreal and sly collection of high lit and low yucks, as silly as a master’s in English and as serious as a heart attack. Los Angeles private eye Chris Marlowe is on the hunt for his partner’s killer, in a strange, strange land where the streets are mean—and literary allusions and pop culture shout-outs fall like rain and run in the gutters. Crooked cops, dangerous dames, and the Holy Grail pop up too.
Dennis Lehane first enthralled readers with his series about Boston private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, and the stunning stand-alone novel, Mystic River.
But Lehane, left, also is an astute historian. He proved that with Shutter Island and The Given Day.
He continues that view of history with his latest novel Live by Night, a tightly focused epic that looks at Prohibition and organized crime that flourished because of it.
Live by Night begins Boston during 1926 and follows the next decade in the life of bootlegger Joe Coughlin as the action moves to Tampa and finally Cuba.
Lehane skillfully balances Joe’s business dealings as well as his complicated personal life.
Like the best of crime fiction, Live by Night shows the impact that crime has on the criminals, the victims and society as a whole.
That’s the same approach the excellent HBO series Boardwalk Empire follows. Set in Atlantic City during the 1920s and 1930s, Boardwalk Empire revolves around bootlegger and crime boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi.
Boardwalk Empire seems tailor made for the talents of Lehane, who will join the series as a writer and creative consultant.
Boardwalk Empire, which is must-see viewing in our home, is currently wrapping up its third season. There should be plenty of story threads for Lehane to grab as this season has, to say the least, been intense.
Lehane’s novels have always dealt with the moral ambiguity of criminals, showing that no one is all bad, or all good.
Boardwalk Empire shows how Prohibition allowed organized crime not only to begin in the U.S. but to thrive. It also shows how so many people were complicit in allowing this to happen, from the mob bosses to ordinary business people to the guy who just wanted to drink in the privacy of his home. Prohibition was a stupid law and people felt justified in breaking it.
Lehane’s stint on Boardwalk Empire reunites him with crime writer George Pelecanos who will become an executive producer during season four. Lehane and Pelecanos also wrote for the HBO series The Wire, which, in my opinion, is one of the finest TV dramas ever.
Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson is based on Enoch L. Johnson, who controlled Atlantic City during Prohibition. The series moves in several historical figures, including mobsters (such as Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky), politicians, government agents and wealthy movers and shakers—people who also were part of Enoch L. Johnson’s life.
Boardwalk Empire airs at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO with frequent encores.
If Peter Gunn was the cool private eye, Harry O was the grumpy, cantankerous, uncool everyman, a misfit Eeyore (played with an gruff panache by David Janssen), limping along the sun-bleached beaches of SoCal, looking for answers he’d never find. Harry was so uncool he didn’t even have a car for much of his show’s run—he would take the bus. The bus! Harry O: The Complete First Season brings together the first year of one of the all-time great private-eye series, second only to (and at times surpassing) its contemporary, The Rockford Files. This tight, evocative drama aimed for a sustained melancholia and world-weary compassion that, in its own way, played as fast and loose with genre rules as Jimbo did, while coming about as close as television has ever come to the poetry of Chandler. Rockford could make you laugh; Harry could make you cry.
In Plain Sight: Season Five
Universal Studios, $29.98, 2 discs
Often dismissed as a wayward Lifetime movie, In Plain Sight: Season Five is a neglected gem from the USA Network that has—despite occasional dips into soap opera territory—proven to be one of the most complex and rewarding character studies of a woman in recent television history. Sure, the will they/won’t they romance between hard-nosed US Marshall Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) and her dopey, erudite partner Marshall Mann (Frederick Weller), at the Albuquerque branch of the Witness Protection Program, gets unnecessarily cute at times, and certainly the endless squabbles among Mary’s dysfunctional family fairly drip with mawkishness, but at its dark, hard core, this show’s all about how the lives of everyday citizens can take random and terrifying turns. Even the final season’s at-times-sitcom-ready pregnancy arc, and its predictable themes of redemption and growth, can’t ward off the surprising emotional wallop of the final episodes. A witty, smart finale to a consistently engaging and often excellent crime drama.
Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season
Sony, $55.99, 4-disc boxed set
Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season is the ultimate finale to one of the most addictive crime shows ever, a morality play played out against the crystal-meth underworld that bypasses right and wrong completely and takes us straight to hell, with brief pit stops to admire all the good intentions, as family man and former high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) squares off against his drug-lord boss for control of the lucrative meth market. This DVD set features every episode of the award-winning season, including the jaw-dropping final episode, 60 minutes so explosively audacious and right that viewers were left stunned. Followed almost immediately as it was by the news that this was not the series’ conclusion, you’ve just got to wonder what on earth series creator Vince Gilligan can possibly do for an encore.
Brass knuckles and bullet-casing jewelry for all the good little girls and boys
Why eat your own heart out, when you can eat a delicious (if rather gruesome) Antatomically Correct Chocolate Human Heart ($16.95) crafted from ten ounces of premium milk chocolate and wrapped in a clear cello bag with red ribbon. Also available in a hefty one-pound size, for those who have big hearts. But of course, the warped chocolatiers at PushinDaisies.com also offer chocolate brains, caskets, and hearses, all crafted from chocolate to die for.
Perfect for evenings when you want to act both the vamp and the sleuth, the playful Magnifying Glass Necklaces ($21.00-$24.00) from Crumpet Cake on Etsy look like some quaint antiques, with their antique silver finishes and Victorian motifs, but they’re also genuine magnifying glasses. This funky blend of playful form and clue-seeking function is ideal for the glamorous, hard-working girl detective on your list.
Nothing says manliness more than the Copper: Brass Knuckles Mug ($18.98), inspired by the BBC America show starring über-macho Tom Weston-Jones as rough, tough Irish-American cop Kevin Corcoran, as he stomps down the slummy, scummy streets of lower Manhattan in the days just after the American Civil War, dispensing justice, head butts, and kidney punches. Sleek black with engraved brass metallic handles, this mug is so damn manly you could even drink decaf herbal tea out of it, and people would still avoid you. The perfect mug for the office.
Another treasure from an Etsy seller, Bullet Casing Earrings and Bullet Casing Necklaces ($28.97-$36.00), from Trapper Creek, Alaska jewlery artist Joni Marie, are perfect for the femme fatale on your list, who ought to enjoy this tantalizing blend of class and intrigue. These upcycled actual bullet casings have faceted sparkling iridescent crystals in various colors, with 14K gold hardware and chains. Dangle with danger.
Want to make sure you live alone forever? Get this disturbing shower Horror Movie Shower Curtain & Bath Mat Set ($14.99) and you’ll never have to worry about unwanted company or return visitors. The 100-percent polyester shower curtain comes pre-smeared with bloody hand prints, measures approximately 71” x 71” and comes with a full set of shower curtain hooks. For full effect, though, you’ll want the matching 27.5” x 19.5” bath mat as well, conveniently stained with bloody footprints. Add some Blood Bath Shower Gel ($4.95) in a convenient plasma bag dispenser and a couple of Blood Bath Bloody Hand Towels ($14.99 each), and even you might get a little freaked when you go in your bathroom.
One last goodie from the Etsy gang is the Scrabble Tile Pendant ($7.95). These vintage pendants are handmade from a wooden Scrabble tile. The image is glued to the game piece and sealed with a scratch resistant epoxy resin, then carefully hand sanded for smooth edges and a professional look, making for a fun, distinctive and colorful piece. Attached is a silver plated bail which will accommodate most cords and chains. Each pendant measures approximately .75” x .85,” and comes with a 24 inch silver plated ball chain. Also available as a keychain. Check the Books and Music section of the store for great possibilities like Got Books? or Stay Calm and Read On, various Nancy Drew tiles, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Michael Connelly: 20 Years with Harry Bosch
Harry Bosch’s latest case takes him full circle to a murder that occurred during the Los Angeles riots of 1992.
by Oline H. Cogdill
The Thin Man Returns
The stylish duo of Nick and Nora Charles return in two long-lost novellas by Dashiell Hammett.
by Scott K. Ratner
A roundup of current legal thrillers and courtroom procedurals.
by Jon L. Breen
Often overlooked, these actors add style, heart, and humanity to any film they grace.
by Ed Gorman
Gifts for Mystery Lovers
Fiendishly fun books, DVDs, jewelry, clothing, and games.
by Kevin Burton Smith
A Way Through the Maze: Stephen Sondheim and The Mystery
The renowned composer and lyricist is also a longtime connoisseur of the mystery and his oeuvre reflects it.
by Joseph Goodrich
“The Dickens of Detroit” Mystery Crossword
by Verna Suit
by Kate Stine
by Louis Phillips
Hints & Allegations
Dagger Awards, Shamus Awards, and Anthony Awards.
First Lines That Caught Our Attention
by Nancy Springer
Death of a Furry Animal
by JoAnna Carl
Small Press Reviews: Covering the Independents
by Betty Webb
Very Original: Paperback Originals Reviewed
by Lynne Maxwell & Hank Wagner
What About Murder? Reference Books Reviewed
by Jon L. Breen
Sounds of Suspense: Audiobooks Reviewed
by Dick Lochte
Short & Sweet: Short Stories Considered
by Bill Crider
Mystery Scene Reviews
Our Readers Recommend
Although we made it through Hurricane Sandy unscathed, the same can’t be said for the huge construction crane which was twisted and left dangling over Midtown Manhattan like the sword of Damocles. Before it was secured, this crane was within falling distance of our offices, so we were evacuated for over a week. As a consequence, this issue is coming to you a little late—our apologies.
It was a different disaster, this one manmade, that inspired Michael Connelly’s latest book, The Black Box. To celebrate his 20-year collaboration with LAPD detective Harry Bosch, Connelly puts Harry on a case that has roots back in the horrifying Los Angeles riots of 1992. There’s also good news for fans on the TV front in Oline Cogdill’s interesting interview.
Get out those cocktail shakers—Nick and Nora Charles are back! In this issue, Scottt K. Ratner reviews The Return of the Thin Man, two previously unpublished novellas about the perpetually tippling ’tecs created by Dashiell Hammett. Hammett’s time in Hollywood is definitely part of the story. The book also offers interesting essays by Richard Layman, Hammett’s biographer, and Joan Rivett, the author’s granddaughter.
Also in this issue, Jon L. Breen takes a look at current legal thrillers and courtroom procedurals. Then Joseph Goodrich takes us on a tour of Stephen Sondheim’s work in the mystery genre, which is much more extensive and interesting than I, for one, had realized. Ed Gorman shines a light on often underappreciated character actors in crime films—here’s looking at you, Frances McDormand! And Kevin Burton Smith gives Santa, and you, a helping hand with our annual Mystery Scene Gift Guide. Personally, I’m asking Santa for The Complete Peter Gunn DVD set this year...
We hope you have a wonderful holiday season. See you in 2013!
Chris Knopf is back, and this time around the highly regarded Connecticut author delivers a new protagonist in Dead Anyway. Instead of our old friend Sam Acquillo, we meet Arthur Cathcart, a market researcher who, during what at first appears to be a home invasion, is shot in the head and almost killed. His wife isn’t as lucky. After awakening from a coma, Cathcart—now missing a piece of his brain—vows revenge. A shrewd man despite his injuries, he recognizes the hit was professional, and that his wife was the probable target. Helped by his physician sister, Cathcart fakes his death and goes underground to track down the hit man. Although neither mentally nor physically up to par, Cathcart retains enough of his high-level research skills to succeed. But that’s just the beginning of this hair-raising thriller, which leads us from the lowest of low-lifes to the über-wealthy magnates at the top of the economic food chain.
Unlike Acquillo (who also suffers from brain injury), Cathcart isn’t always admirable. He doesn’t draw the line at theft and torture, and he doesn’t mind dragging an innocent bystander—in this case, a beautiful blackjack dealer—into his vendetta. Admirers of double-dealing high finance novels will love Knopf’s Machiavellian plot, but keeping track of all that money can be bewildering to those of us who can’t even balance our checkbooks. No matter. By the time we’ve reached the last page, we’ll have learned how some of the nowinfamous one-percenters earned it and kept it. Dead Anyway is an economics lesson deftly disguised as a superb crime novel.
The Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Høeg, translated from the original Danish by Martin Aitken, is a flat-out marvel. Those who loved the delicacy of Høeg’s breakout novel, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, might be surprised by the often broad humor of this romp through the lives of three children whose parents have disappeared. How broad is it? Well, characters’ names include Polly Pigonia, Einar Flogginfellow, Leonora Ticklepalate, and Bodil Hippopotamus—just to mention a few.
Set in Denmark, this witty but wise tale follows 14-year-old protagonist Peter, his sister Tilte, brother Hans, and dog Basker as they elude capture while attempting to track their errant parents down. Høeg takes stylistic chance after chance as the action shifts from an idyllic Danish island to the somewhat meaner streets of Copenhagen and its churches, ashrams, banks, and brothels. Not only is the book written with flashbacks galore, but we find few simple declarative sentences. Instead, we get long, discursive meanderings that refer to other events, other times, and other places, not to mention a growing cast of what appears to be thousands. If The Elephant Keepers’ Children sounds like it might be difficult to read, yes, it is. However, it’s worth the trouble, because what begins as a mere criminal caper eventually reveals a depth of philosophy and emotional resonance seldom encountered in crime fiction.
Humor is in the ascendancy in Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Boil. A plethora of Southern eccentrics populate this rousing tale of murder and real estate on the tiny South Carolina island of Stella Maris. After her beloved grandmother dies, PI Liz Talbot suspects murder and uses her considerable investigative skills to find out the truth. Along the way, she discovers a plot to develop the serene island for tourism, something the island’s strict zoning laws have historically forbidden.
Murder may be a serious matter, but there are guffaws galore as author Boyer treats us to some of the goofiest and most loveable characters in crime fiction. There’s Liz’s cousin Colleen, who, due to her untimely death, is now a ghost who delights in popping up at untimely moments; Liz’s mother, who believes that mayhem and heartbreak can be cured by freshening up your lipstick; Liz’s shotgun-toting daddy; her brother, the perpetually perplexed police chief; and last, but certainly not least, Chumley, a drooling basset hound.
Twisted humor has long been a tradition in Southern literature (maybe it’s the heat and humidity), and Boyer delivers it with both barrels. In lesser hands, all the hijinks could be distracting, but not in Lowcountry Boil. Boyer’s voice is so perky that no matter what looney mayhem her characters commit, we happily dive in with them. An original and delightful read.
Blake Fontenay’s The Politics of Barbecue dishes up Southern eccentricity along with massive slabs of the Pigg Pen’s barbecued ribs served by busty waitresses dubbed “the Pigglettes.” Set in Memphis, where Elvis impersonators, dirty politics, and country music reign supreme, this rowdy caper delivers— besides the barbecue ribs—Pete Pigg (real name Peter Applewhite), owner of the aforesaid establishment and a mayor who’s raised crookedness to an art form; sleazy union organizers; a civic-minded arsonist; a Hollywood porn producer determined to make Memphis the porn capital of the South; and enough graft and bribery to make Boss Tweed envious. But of all the book’s characters, perhaps the wackiest of them all is the book’s hero, Joe Miller, a cynical public relations man who counts the mayor among his clients.
Now, I don’t often root for the bad guys, but I must admit that Mayor Pete Pigg is so hilariously without redeeming features that I actually developed a fondness for him. And the dialogue is nothing short of knee-slapping, almost a contemporary nod to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. You’ll grin all the way through The Politics of Barbecue just for the sheer pleasure of watching so many characters behaving badly but—as with all good literature—you’ll walk away having learned something important: namely, the real difference between Kansas City and Memphis barbecue.
Janet Dawson’s What You Wish For uses the dangerous tool of coincidence in spinning a yarn that spans five decades, two countries, and the personal problems of a circle of college friends—some of whom have children with unspecified fathers. Although the “Who’s my daddy?” subplot lends the book a slight soap opera-ish feel, the book manages to tie together the war in El Salvador, the plight of the rebels’ kidnapped children, and the raucous lifestyles of California in the 1970s (Patty Hearst makes an entrance in these pages).
Main protagonist Lindsey, a historian living in Berkeley, is writing a book about the slaughter of peasants in the tiny village of San Blas, El Salvador. While doing her research, she interviews Flor, a woman whose husband died during that massacre, and whose toddler son disappeared in the aftermath. In the meantime, Lindsey’s friend Claire Dunlin is battling to take over the Dunlin Corporation, her deceased father’s coffee company. The tie-in here is that the company has been shipping its coffee from El Salvador. An excellent you-are-there exposé of the El Salvador government’s appalling human rights abuses, at times the book gets confusing with its many points of view and various time lines, but What You Wish For succeeds in putting a human face on “the end justifies the means” political philosophy which has savaged the world for far too many decades.
Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, translated from the Italian by Howard Curtis, gives us the debut of Dr. Duca Lamberti. Although released in Italy in 1966, this is the first time fans of the acclaimed master of Italian noir can read this classic in English, and the time lag does give rise to a few problems. Politically correct it’s not, especially in the derisive language used to describe a homosexual photographer. And the good doctor’s “cure” for alcoholism will have members of a certain Twelve Step program rolling their eyes in disbelief.
Despite these caveats, A Private Venus is so beautifully written that the story has no trouble keeping us glued to the page. Duca, a Milanese physician struck off the medical register after being imprisoned for euthanizing a patient, has been hired by a violent but wealthy man to “cure” Davide, his alcoholic son. Duca believes (we’re talking Italy in the 1960s, remember), the best way to do that is to give Davide everdecreasing doses of alcohol while exploring the real reason for the man’s self-destructive behavior. Before long, Duca finds himself re-examining the year-old case of a young woman who committed suicide after a sexual encounter with Davide. During Duca’s investigation, he meets Livia Ussaro, the dead girl’s friend, a beautiful and intelligent woman who—merely out of curiosity—has been selling her body on Milan’s mean streets.
Suicide, murder, and prostitution aside, there is considerable poetry in these pages. “Life is a well of marvels,” Duca muses at one point. “There’s everything in it: rags, diamonds, cutthroats, and Livia Ussaro.” As an extra, included in the book is the Kiev-born Scerbanenco’s short autobiography, and it’s a wowser.
For most of us, Lynda La Plante will always be associated with the British series Prime Suspect, featuring the wonderful Helen Mirren.
La Plante wrote the first and third seasons of Prime Suspect and won an Edgar for her work.
La Plante also has written several intriguing novels such as Silent Scream and Blood Line about young police detective Anna Travis.
La Plante also devised and wrote Trial & Retribution, a compelling police procedural series that ran from 1997 through 2008 in Great Britain.
Each story is divided into two parts, delving into the crime, forensics and courtroom. Each two-part episode is self-contained with no storylines carried over into the next.
The multi-layered plots give insight into the British legal system while also delving into the individual personalities of the criminals and the cops.
The use of a split screen, showing two or even three scenes at the same time, is effective and reinforces the intensity of the plots.
Like the American Law & Order, Trial & Retribution’s cases also are ripped from the headlines.
Set 5’s four episodes include a man who may have been wrongly convicted of murder, a call girl’s murder, a kidnapped young woman and a pediatric surgeon’s death.
The episodes also show the effect of crime on the survivors with compassion and realism.
The cases are investigated by Detective Sergeant Michael Walker, played by David Hayman, and Detective Inspector Róisín Connor, played by Victoria Smurfit. Their chemistry works well as colleagues who respect each other as well as deal with the occasional friction. They, and the rest of the team, which includes David "Satch" Satchell played by Dorian Lough, are a cohesive group.
Trial & Retribution is addictive.
PHOTOS: David Hayman Victoria Smurfit. Photos courtesy Acorn Media