Ken Bruen’s short story collection The Galway Trinity is both a literary and visual treat, arriving with burly, brutal illustrations by always on-the-money illustrator Phil Parks. The title may be a slight misnomer, because the collection contains four short stories, not three (a fourth is set in South London). Burnt-out ex-Garda detective Jack Taylor represents the Galway contingent, and he does so with such angst that stones would weep for him. Wry, bitter, and trying hard not to care about the misshapen humanity he mixes with, Taylor bolts back Jameson as if each bottle was the last on Earth. In “The Dead Room,” he investigates the death of an elderly woman and hates what he finds. In “And All the Swans Are Dying,” he equates a swan’s death to his own lost love. In “Galway Hooker” (referring to a boat, not a prostitute), he corners an arsonist. The plots of these stories may be gripping, but it has always been Bruen’s ragged poet’s voice that captures us. About Irish colleens, he writes, “They are a race apart, they get fixed on a man, he’s done, delivered and God betide the ejit who gets in the middle.” About a sleazy Galway pub, he observes, “The King’s Arms had nothing majestic about it, it was a dump that seemed to cater to low lifes of all kinds, it smelled of desperation and dead dreams and worse, stale curry.” Of the old Irish gods, he says, “Those whom the gods would destroy, they first torture the living be-jayus out of.” Like all memorable protagonists, it is Jack Taylor’s curse to pretend stoicism while bleeding from a thousand psychic wounds. “Who the fook cares?” he mutters, trying to convince himself he doesn’t “give a fook” that young men are being murdered all over Galway. Belying his own words, he perpetually rises from his bar stool and staggers off to avenge the dead. If men are judged more by actions than their words, Jack is a candidate for sainthood. But if words make the saint, Ken Bruen already has his halo.
Mark Douglas-Home's The Sea Detective is a wrenching, brilliant novel which uses the science of oceanic currents to tell what at first appears to be two different stories. The book opens with a harrowing chapter showing Preeti, a 13-year-old Indian girl, being sold into international sexual slavery by her despicable father. By the end of the chapter, Preeti is dead, drowned off the Scottish coast by her pedophile captors when she is no longer of use. The action then moves to Edinburgh, and the computer-filled flat of Cal McGill, a self-absorbed PhD oceanography candidate, who—using the science of oceanic currents—is attempting to track the origin of severed feet washed ashore on various Scottish beaches. When the two stories blend—Preeti’s and Cal’s—we learn that betrayal comes in many forms, frequently delivered by those we trust the most. Although Preeti died at the hands of her captors, her friend Basanti has escaped. Unlike many of the captive children, Basanti can read and write, and while scrabbling through a dumpster for food, she finds a newspaper article that sends her on a dangerous journey across Scotland seeking justice for Preeti. This is an extraordinary book for several reasons. Because of its engrossing characters, The Sea Detective nimbly straddles the difficult border between social protest books and “mere entertainment.” Hermit-like Cal isn’t always likable; he hasn’t behaved well toward the women in his life, so he makes a surprising, if initially unwilling, hero. And child prostitutes Preeti and Basanti display the heart and grit to make a lasting impact on all the lives they touch. So read The Sea Detective for its thrills and chills, but don’t ignore its deeper message: prostitution is not a victimless crime, especially when children are involved.
Victoria Jenkins’ An Unattended Death gives us Irene Chavez, a small-town cop in Washington State, who once aspired to a law degree, but put her dreams aside to become a wife and mother. Now a widow as her son enters his risky teenage years, she often feels overwhelmed by her duties, both at home and at work. In other words, she’s enough like us that we can all relate. When the body of a young psychiatrist is found floating in a nearby slough, Chavez heads up the investigation only to find that the dead woman’s wealthy family prefers the case quickly be closed, and the death labeled an accident. Their apparent lack of curiosity and grief is so odd that Chavez’s suspicions are aroused. Jenkins’ extraordinarily good writing allows her to weave a large and diverse number of conflicts into her whodunit narrative: home versus work; concern versus apathy; memory versus denial—all portrayed with that subtle, certain hand found only in the very best of crime fiction. The beauty and danger of Puget Sound provide the perfect backdrop for a mystery that has us reexamining our own close relationships, wondering if we know our loved ones as well as we think we do. Yet there is a lack of cynicism in An Unattended Death that has become increasingly rare in contemporary literature, and for that, we can look to Officer Irene Chavez, a woman who may fear the truth, but seeks it anyway.
The Cat Did Not Die isn’t really about a cat. Yes, there is a cat in the book, and no, the cat doesn’t die. But it is actually a psychological suspense novel about a woman who commits a violent act and then spends the rest of the book in self-destructive denial. When Beth comes across a mentally challenged man hiding in an old shed, she mistakes his alarmed response for an attack and batters him to death with a nearby axe. When her boyfriend Ulf, a journalist, discovers the body, he is unwillingly drawn into a plot to cover up the death. Soon, their formerly strong relationship begins to deteriorate. Lie piles upon lie as the action moves from coastal Sweden to Tanzania, where Ulf and Beth’s sister Juni, a photographer, are researching the Maasai tribe, with the disturbed Beth in tow. Things do not end well. The Nordic countries have a reputation for chilly noirs, and prize-winning Frimansson upholds that reputation with a vengeance here. Although Beth is a less-than-sympathetic character, the quality of Frimansson’s writing is such that we are drawn into her tortured mind despite ourselves. But all is not doom and gloom in The Cat Did Not Die. As a foil to Beth’s dark imaginings, the author gives us Kaarina, the simple, justice-seeking farm woman who loved the unnamed victim. Kaarina and the titular cat she cares for emerge as beams of light in an otherwise midnight-colored novel.
Bill Hopkins’ Courting Murder is an unusual hybrid of a mystery, serious in the first chapters, then rising to humor as the body count rises. When Rosswell Carew, a small-town judge, discovers a murdered man and a woman in a nearby wilderness park and the bodies promptly disappear, he decides to investigate the unusual goings-on. Realizing he doesn’t know enough, he enlists Ollie, a local snitch and petty criminal, to help. And that’s when things get weird. Too weird for Sheriff Charles “Frizz” Dodson, who—although stumped about the killings—doesn’t trust either Rosswell or Ollie. Rosswell resembles a loose cannon more than a judge, and Ollie is more apt to be found sitting in a cell than helping the police. What ensues is a romp through baked pie contests, motorcycle rallies, and large sums of dirty money. Author Hopkins, a judge himself, has a tendency to play fast and loose with the law in Courting Murder, but that just adds to the fun. One warning: careful readers might want to keep notes on who’s who—just because a character starts off in the book using one name doesn’t mean he/she will be using the same name by the last page. As it turns out, small Missouri towns are rife with people living under aliases.
Despite a title that reads like a blurb and some instances of clumsy writing (for example, that old mystery cliché “A shot rang out!” is used too often), Liz Strange’s Missing Daughter, Shattered Family still works. The book’s strength is in its protagonist David Lloyd, an out and proud ex-cop whose only weakness is an excess of compassion. The Canadian PI has been hired by a wealthy woman to find daughter Stella, a former dancer turned drug addict, now gone missing in Ontario’s strip-joint underworld. Lloyd’s investigation brings about an unwelcome reunion with the cadre of gay-bashing cops who brought about his resignation from the police force, and are now threatening him again. Adding emotional weight to the riveting plot is Lloyd’s long-time romance with Jamie, a prosecuting attorney who fears being outed, even though his reluctance to come out is damaging their relationship. There’s enough violence here to satisfy readers with a thirst for blood, but at the same time, Lloyd and Jamie’s loving-but-tentative relationship will speak to readers trying to navigate their own tenuous lives.
The latest Black Cat Bookshop Mystery by Ali Brandon (aka Diane A.S. Stuckart) is A Novel Way to Die. Once again, series protagonist and Texas transplant Darla Pettistone dominates the action, as she continues to acclimate to Brooklyn, New York, and the bookstore she inherited from her aunt. Managing a bookstore is challenging, but Darla’s real nemesis is Hamlet, the huge and fearsome black cat who was an additional and unexpected bequest. Luckily, though, Hamlet possesses magical powers that enable him to pull books from the shelves, thereby revealing cryptic passages that assist Darla in solving mysteries. I won’t divulge the particulars of the plot, but suffice it to say that Darla courts danger for both Hamlet and herself because she has extremely—and I mean extremely—poor taste in men. But the truly significant question: can Darla ever bond with her fractious feline? Stay tuned for the surprising result. I, for one, am very curious about where this quirky series will travel next.
This delightful tale stars reading specialist Lizzie Turner, who is also a prominent member of the Ashton Corners Mystery Readers and Cheese Straws Society, located in small-town Alabama. The eclectic society is composed of a motley crew of characters, including a third-grade teacher, a retired police chief, an attorney, a young pregnant woman, a reading-challenged teen, and the gracious hostess of the club. The mystery begins when Derek Alton, a one-hit-wonder mystery writer, arrives in Ashton Corners to autograph books in a local bookstore. Why, Lizzie wonders, would this author want to visit sleepy Ashton Corners, certainly an unlikely stop for a book tour? Something about him arouses Lizzie’s suspicions, especially when he makes inappropriate advances toward her, even after she has clearly stated that she has a boyfriend, who also happens to be the new chief of police. This doesn’t deter the sleazy author, however. In fact, Alton has already volunteered to speak at the next book club meeting and uses this as a pretext for visiting Lizzie at her home. He doesn’t linger for long, though, because he is shot and killed from outside Lizzie’s window. Why? As expected, the book club members eagerly leap into action, but it remains for Lizzie, sleuth extraordinaire, to arrive at the solution.
In addition to the expert plotting and characterizations, Read and Buried offers a unique feature: reading lists of mysteries favored by each member of the club. You might want to take along these lists the next time you visit your local library.
I love Paris in the springtime, just as the song says.
Actually, that’s the only time I’ve been to Paris, not counting the one-day visit that was part of a cruise.
While my friends and I stumbled through Paris by ourselves, the idea of going with someone who truly knows the city is quite appealing.
Author Cara Black is offering just such a trip.
And if anyone knows Paris, it’s Black.
Black is the national bestselling author of 13 novels about private investigator Aimée Leduc.
Set in Paris, these novels take the reader to neighborhoods and streets off the beaten path, giving a
view of the City of Lights few tourists see.
In Murder Below Montparnasse, her latest novel, Aimee searches for a priceless long-lost Modigliani portrait and a Soviet secret that’s been buried for 80 years.
Black’s novels have earned her several nominations for the Anthony and Macavity awards, a Washington Post Book World Book of the Year citation, the Médaille de la Ville de Paris—the Paris City Medal, which is awarded in recognition of contribution to international culture.
And now she is offering A Killer Trip to Paris for 15 fans to see the city as it appears in her novels.
An entry form to enter the contest is in copies of the first printing of her latest novel Murder Below Montparnasse and at some bookstores.
For details, visit www.parisisformurder.com.
The contest will run from March 5, 2013, to April 30, 2013. The winner will be announced on May 15. The trip will place from Oct. 15, 2013, through Oct. 22, 2013.
To gear up for the hundreds and hundreds of copies of Murder Below Montparnasse that will include the entry form, Black recently had a marathon signing at a warehouse.
I’m exhausted just looking at the number of books she signed.
Photos: Top, A mountain of books awaits Cara Black's signature. Bottom, Cara Black, center, signs the last copy at the warehouse. Photos courtesy Soho Press.
Kinsey & Her: The Sue Grafton Interview
A fascinating conversation with one of the icons of contemporary mystery fiction.
by Kevin Burton Smith
Criminal Associations: Allingham, Carr & Doyle
A signed book from Margery Allingham’s library reveals a host of literary connections.
by Douglas G. Greene
The Following, a new TV drama, crosses a line when it invokes Edgar Allan Poe as part of its glamorization of the serial killer.
by Laura Miller
Gormania: 10 Great John D. MacDonald Novels
Widely admired for his Travis McGee mysteries, MacDonald also wrote some fine standalone crime novels.
by Ed Gorman
Fave Raves of 2012
Books that linger in the mind long after year’s end.
by Mystery Scene contributors
Life Upon the Wicked Stage: Amnon Kabatchnik
A monumental work of scholarship chronicles the history of mystery theater.
by Joseph Goodrich
“3.14159” Mystery Crossword
by Verna Suit
by Kate Stine
by Louis Phillips
Hints & Allegations
Edgar Award nominations, 2013 Grand Master Awards, Every Picture Tells a Story, Dilys Award nominations, Nero Wolfe Awards
The Novelist as Grave Robber
by Holly Goddard Jones
The Babysitter’s Legacy
by Jenny Milchman
First Lines That Caught Our Attention
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
The more you think you know about any- thing, the more you can be surprised. That was Kevin Burton Smith’s reaction to his revealing conversation with Sue Grafton in this issue. It turns out that the traumatic childhood of Grafton’s detective character Kinsey Millhone has some recognizable echoes in her own.
Even if you don’t have the opportunity to see a lot of theater, let me recommend Amnon Kabatchnik’s brilliant Blood on the Stage, a four-volume history of crime, mystery, and detection plays. These books are great reads—well-written, immensely knowledgeable, and packed with entertaining anecdotes and trivia. We asked Joe Goodrich, himself an Edgar-winning playwright, to give an overview of Blood on the Stage and talk to its author. I think you’ll be intrigued!
Speaking of excellent criticism, our con- gratulations to longtime Mystery Scene contributor Oline Cogdill! She will be receiving a Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America at this year’s Edgar Awards Banquet. The Raven is given for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing, and I think we can all agree that Oline certainly deserves it.
Have you already read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals? Seen Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Then proceed imme- diately to Daniel Stashower’s nonfiction work The Hour of Peril in which Allan Pinkerton, America’s first private eye, saves Honest Abe from assassination as the President-elect makes his way to Washington in 1861. Judging by the response we get on Facebook and Twitter, John D. MacDonald must be one of our readers all-time favorite writers. He certainly is for Ed Gorman, who lauds his top 10 MacDonald novels in this issue. For a list of more recent top crime novels, check out our “Fave Raves” for 2012, in which several Mystery Scene contributors name their picks for the best of last year.
In “Desecrating Poe,” Laura Miller tackles a topic that has been bothering me, too: the celebration of the serial killer in crime fiction. “Like an anti-porn crusader lingering over the (shocking!) details of the material that offends her, the serial-killer genre, with half-pretended revulsion, offers up lavish interludes of sadistic violence....While the narrative pretends to condemn and recoil from its serial-killer villain, it covertly encourages us to revel in his powers.” She is particularly outraged that The Following, the new Fox TV series about a Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed serial killer, is claiming the writer as a touchstone. Miller asserts, I think correctly, that Poe never showed much interest in evil per se, let alone celebrated it.
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this topic. Write in and let’s talk about it! Brian and I will be at Malice Domestic and the Edgars this spring, and at Bouchercon and Magna Cum Murder later on in the year. We hope to see you!
Historical mysteries have given the genre wonderful stories. James R. Benn’s Billy Boyle stories and Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel novels explore life during WWII while Charles Todd and Jacqueline Winspear have shown us WWI, better than Downton Abbey. Martin Limon brings a view of the Korean Conflict.
But historical mysteries aren’t all about war or settings occurring more than 60 years ago.
Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone novels are set in the 1980s and, as the series inches toward 1990, the vast changes in technology they reflect are astounding.
Did we really live without cell phones, the Internet or computers?
Each of our histories are different. My memories are different than yours, even if we grew up in the same era or share a hometown.
P.J. Parrish’s latest novel Heart of Ice sparked a memory for me. Parrish’s novels about Louis Kincaid began in the mid-1980s and now, with Heart of Ice, have reached 1990.
In Heart of Ice, Louis has brought his daughter, Lilly, to Michigan's picturesque Mackinac Island just before the remote tourist area shuts down for the winter. But the vacation has barely begun when Lily falls on top of a skeleton in the basement of an abandoned hunting lodge. This launches an investigation that has its roots in 1969 when a wealthy industrialist’s daughter disappeared.
My review just ran in the Sun Sentinel.
It’s the 1969 part of Heart of Ice that sparked a memory when the investigators find a photograph in which the boys are wearing shirts with fruit loops on the back.
Boy, did that spark a memory.
I am not talking about the cereal, which is spelled differently, but the little loops that were on the back of boys’ shirts back in the day.
In Heart of Ice, the investigators talk about how girls would collect fruit loops: “Conquests. Guys notched their belts. Girls collected fruit loops.”
Actually, my friends and I were too innocent for “conquests,” and probably didn’t know what that meant back then. But we did collect fruit loops from boys’ shirts. We weren’t sure why, but it was fun and one of those little things that girls share.
This whole fruit loop reference lasts less than two paragraphs in Heart of Ice. But it sparked a lovely memory.
I think that having your words connect with a reader’s experiences has to be one of the best compliments an author can receive.
As for those fruit loops – I doubt they lasted in our homes past the first year of college.
But I remember when four of us asked a guy if we could have his fruit loop, and it was a sweet memory.
Photo: P.J. Parrish are sisters Kris Montee, left, and Kelly Nichols
You’ll definitely want to visit Briar Creek Public Library, located on the rocky Connecticut coast. Join the colorful townsfolk in Jenn McKinlay’s Book, Line, and Sinker for an in-depth tour conducted by library director Lindsey Norris. As is customary in public libraries, Briar Creek offers a book club, but this one is held during the lunch break for Lindsey and friends. Fiction turns to fact, however, when the town, book club members included, is divided into opposing camps by a major controversy. Should Briar Creek maintain the integrity off the pristine island off its coast, or should it capitalize upon the job opportunities promised by a salvage expert, who intends to unearth a legendary treasure rumored to be buried there by Captain Kidd? The dispute turns deadly, naturally, and Lindsey, aided by her seafaring boyfriend, Mike “Sully” Sullivan, takes the helm, figuratively, and pilots Briar Creek to safe harbor. McKinlay also steers this novel to a most satisfying denouement that will encourage you to follow this well-crafted series as it journeys into the future. And I must confess, I fell for the red herrings hook—er—book, line, and sinker.
Matt Richtel’s The Cloud begins in classic thriller fashion as journalist Nat Idle is almost pushed into the path of an oncoming train. Although it could easily be interpreted as a bizarre accident, Idle concludes it was an attack after his assailant drops a piece of paper with two names on it, including his own. Trying to track down the person who he assumes is the next potential victim, Idle becomes embroiled in a seeming conspiracy to peddle defective cognitive software to Chinese youths. But is it? You see, “the cloud” of the title has two meanings, one as an ethereal place of data storage, and the other, the confused mental state Idle finds himself in after sustaining a concussion in the initial attack.
Richtel does a tremendous job in pulling readers into the story with his harrowing opening, never letting up for a minute. Idle is a compelling character, but is a classic unreliable narrator, as we don’t know whether we can fully trust his interpretation of events. Reminiscent of the movies Vertigo and Memento, The Cloud makes for memorable reading.
Memories loom large in Alison Gaylin’s second Brenna Spector novel, Into the Dark, as her heroine, a New York PI, suffers from a rare condition called hyperthymestic syndrome, causing her to remember everything that’s happened around her since she was 11—sights, sounds, smells, conversations, everything. It’s a blessing, as she’s a veritable treasure trove of knowledge about certain events, and a curse, as she often effectively begins to relive past events unless she’s able to apply a coping technique. Her personal history figures prominently here, as the seductive murmurings of a missing Internet performance artist, “Lula Belle,” conjure memories of her sister Clea, who went missing decades prior. Hoping she may be reunited with her long-lost sibling, Brenna takes the case, doggedly pursuing leads even after she realizes her well-being, and the well-being of those around her, may be threatened by doing so.
Spector is a great character, and Gaylin exploits her unique condition effectively, cannily avoiding making it into the primary focus of her series. Spector’s surroundings and supporting cast are well drawn, allowing readers instant access into her world. The fact that the case is so personal only makes the book more compelling, as Gaylin manages to convey a sense of urgency throughout her carefully crafted narrative.
In Gregg Olsen’s Fear Collector, police detective Grace Alexander is assigned to a case in which the perpetrator seems to have adopted infamous serial killer Ted Bundy’s methods to secure his victims. Grace knows those methods intimately because she was educated about all things Bundy from an early age by her obsessive mother, who believed “Ted” was responsible for the disappearance of Grace’s older sister Tricia. Grace’s current case thus becomes extremely personal, as the past collides with the present in visceral, disturbing ways.
As the author of several true-crime accounts, Olsen brings an extensive knowledge of crime, criminals, and police procedure to bear on his storytelling. Indeed, at times, you might feel as if the author is relating things that actually occurred, rather than things he’s cobbled together from his imagination. This brutal verisimilitude makes it easier for the reader to accept the novel’s more outré elements (mothers do not come off well in this book), making for edge-of-the-seat reading. You’ll also learn more about Ted Bundy than you ever expected to garner from a thriller; Olsen’s twisted take on his legacy is guaranteed to leave you spooked for many days after you finish.
Conan Doyle’s previously unpublished log of his 1880 voyage as 20-year-old ship’s surgeon on the Arctic whaler S.S. Hope is presented in 200 pages of facsimile, including some skillful drawings by the multitalented author, and an 80-page transcript extensively annotated by the editors, who also offer an excellent introduction and concluding essay.
Doyle was an engaging writer from the beginning, and this superbly designed book has obvious biographical and historical interest. Appended are four of Doyle’s later writings drawing on his Arctic experience, two nonfiction magazine accounts, the ghost story “The Captain of the Pole-Star,” and the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of Black Peter.”
The McFarland Companion series, edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, has been consistently excellent, both in its choice of subjects and its quality of scholarship and writing. This latest addition is well up to the standard set by earlier volumes on John Buchan, E.X. Ferrars, and Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and contains the usual features: a biography of the subject, a life chronology, and alphabetical and chronological lists of works, followed by a main text in dictionary form including works, major characters, locales, associates and influences, and topical essays (e.g., “Female Detectives and Marriage”).
Though usually associated with a single famous title, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835-1915) produced a huge body of work between 1860 and the year of her death. Beller makes a strong case for her historical importance to the development of detective fiction and the changing status of women. Many readers (including this one) will be set on the trail of her less well-known novels, readily available on the print and ebook markets.
The McFarland Companion series, edited by Elizabeth Foxwell, has been consistently excellent, both in its choice of subjects and its quality of scholarship and writing. This latest addition is well up to the standard set by earlier volumes on John Buchan, E.X. Ferrars, and Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and contains the usual features: a biography of the subject, a life chronology, and alphabetical and chronological lists of works, followed by a main text in dictionary form including works, major characters, locales, associates and influences, and topical essays (e.g., “Mafia and Representation of the Church”).
Born in 1925, the prolific Andrea Camilleri, creator of Sicilian cop Salvo Montalbano, is my personal favorite among recent European mystery writers in translation. He is the first non-English-language writer as well as the first living subject to be covered in the McFarland series. Rinaldi lists the Montalbano books and stories and the author’s other writings by their original Italian titles in separate alphabetical and chronological lists, with US titles or translations of titles not published in English given in parentheses.
The fourth and final volume of the author’s monumental reference on 20th-century stage crime begins chronologically with the 1975 John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse musical Chicago and ends with Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project (2000). Discussed along the way are modern classics (David Mamet’s American Buffalo, Sam Shepard’s Buried Child), adaptations of print novels (three versions of The Hound of the Baskervilles, two of Dracula, A Murder Is Announced, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, The Little Sister, The Talented Mr. Ripley, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre), and numerous offbeat or obscure oddities that have managed to get an English-language production. Represented are renowned mainstream playwrights (David Rabe, Terence Ratigan, Tom Stoppard, David Henry Huang, Romulus Linney, Tennessee Williams), and others best known for mystery fiction (James Yaffe, Simon Brett, Francis Durbridge, Ira Levin, David Stuart Davies). Entries provide exhaustive descriptions and plot summaries, stage histories, notes on the playwrights and authors of source material, and quotes from reviews. Appendices on poison, the courtroom, death row, children in peril, and one-acts update information from the previous volumes. This is one of the key secondary sources of the young century, and I hope some awards-giving body will recognize it.
The latest addition to the crowded how-to-write-a-mystery field is enjoyable in the way any discussion of the craft and business by a witty and accomplished pro would be. It’s humorously, chattily written with some good common-sense advice, and the parodic fictional examples that begin and end the chapters are often very funny. But there are many better technical manuals available. The history and classification of the early chapters are so weak that some readers may bail out before they get to the more useful material. Anna Katharine Green’s The Leavenworth Case was not the first detective novel, though an argument could be made if it had actually been published in 1848 as Kurland states, and the definition of a cozy—few of whose contemporary practitioners are anything like Agatha Christie—is misleading and oversimplified.
Theodore Roscoe (1906-1992), an extremely prolific writer of mostly criminous fiction and nonfiction for pulps, slicks, and hardcover books, is not an unworthy biographical or critical subject, but this amateurish effort, first published by Starmont/Borgo Press in 1992, wildly exaggerates his literary stature. Quotes from Roscoe in the text as well as his foreword suggest he would agree. Too much space is devoted to his juvenilia, not as remarkable as the author seems to think. The best features are about 20 pages from Roscoe’s correspondence and journal entries and another 20 of useful bibliography. The original text is apparently unchanged, but its transference to a new format creates some problems. It’s sometimes hard to tell the main text from the quoted material, and the high number of apparent scanner misreads (“Eric Stanley Gardner,” “I know how to end the yam”) suggest the lack of a human proofreader.
Reviewed from the ebook edition.
The novel’s protagonist and narrator, ex-MI5 agent Thomas Lang, is both droll and sarcastic. These attitudes are admirably struck by reader Prebble who toughens up when it comes to the American voices that are either gruff or dumb or gruff and dumb. The book is definitely anti-CIA. Beyond that, it would take a more agile mind than mine to figure out the permutations of a plot that begins simply enough with Lang being hired to kill an American businessman. It soon expands with a surfeit of subplots and twists, the better to accommodate a large cast that includes the businessman’s beautiful daughter who wants to kill Lang, vile billionaires, ineffectual terrorists, and CIA agents, rogue and otherwise. Fortunately, the book has enough amusing scenes, witty conversations, and laugh-out-loud quips that fitting all the pieces together is neither necessary nor advisable. Better to just relax and enjoy Prebble’s snarky rendition of events.
It often stuns me—and not in a good way—when I hear other mystery authors say they don’t read beyond our genre. Some of them, it seems, hardly read at all!
I make it a point to read widely. Fiction, nonfiction, literary, mystery…that’s how my to-be-read pile is arranged. One reason for this—as well as pure curiosity—is strategic. I want my own books to flash glimmers of the real world beyond the plot or whodunit. I think it makes the books richer, and I know when I read that’s what I’m on the lookout for.
Tom Wolfe is as much journalist-slash-sociologist as novelist, and it’s one of the many things I appreciate about him. Whether it’s the New York City of Bonfire of the Vanities, the New South of A Man in Full, or the “Dupont University” of I Am Charlotte Simmons, the reader experience is intense because the novels provide total immersion in specific places. In Back to Blood, Wolfe zeros his rifle scope on the present day Miami of racial and ethnic tribalism. Whew!
If you open one of his massive tomes looking for nuanced character development or tightly constructed plots, Tom Wolfe is not your man. But if you want to temporarily live in another fascinating place and learn the rhythms, the culture, the dark secrets beneath the surface, bingo.
Nobody writes like him, either. Every character in Wolfe’s novels speak and think in sweeping, soaring, extended, and emphatic ways and he punctuates with more exclamation marks and italicized words than the combined text messages from a thousand teenage girls.
From Chapter 9: "Nestor was nine years old all over again when he used these German binoculars the Crime Suppression Unit provided, the JenaStrahls. Oh, the childlike wonder this great gadget engendered!"
Most writers would simply write: Nestor raised the binoculars.
Wolfe’s overheated style leaves some readers cold, I realize that. But he gets away with it because he invented it and he does it better than any of his imitators and because he’s friggin’ Tom Wolfe.
People often ask me if I read other authors while I’m writing my own books and the answer is yes—with the exception of Tom Wolfe. I save his for periods of time between books. That’s because his style is so enthusiastic and infectious that I begin thinking in his word patterns. Oh, how his crazy and wonderful and unique and infectious style could influence my own! (See, it just happened!)
C.J. Box writes the bestselling Joe Pickett mystery series beginning with Open Season (2001), and is the author of several standalone novels and short stories.
Author website: www.cjbox.net
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews March 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.
Writing an award-nominated novel is no laughing matter. But that didn't stop this year's Left Coast Crime Lefty Award nominees for Best Humorous Mystery from taking themselves most unseriously when they shared their favorite jokes with Mystery Scene.
Lefty nominees Mike Befeler (Cruising in Your Eighties Is Murder), Laura DiSilverio (Swift Run), Jess Lourey (December Dread), and Brad Parks (The Girl Next Door) share a few chuckles. Other nominees in the category are Lisa Lutz (Trail of the Spellmans) and Nancy Glass West (Fit To Be Dead).
Congratulations to all the Left Coast Crime nominees! The 2012 winners will be honored at Left Coast Crime in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on March 23, 2013.
1. A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”
2. If life hands you melons, you might be dyslexic.
3. Two muffins were in the oven. The first muffin says to the other, “Dang, it’s hot in here.” The second muffin screams, “Aaagh, a talking muffin!”
"Most of the jokes I like are short, word play kind of jokes," said DiSilverio, a career Air Force intelligence officer who turned in her security clearance in 2004 after 20 years of service and now pens no fewer than four series: Mall Cop Mysteries, Ballroom Dance Mysteries, Southern Beauty Shop Mysteries, and Swift Investigations Mysteries (to which her Lefty-nominated novel belongs). On her website DiSilverio says, "Along the way, I married my wonderful husband and produced two beautiful children who redefined what is important in life." She noted that joke no. 1 is wonderful husband's favorite, while joke no. 3 is a favorite of her 15-year-old daughter's. lauradisilverio.com
December Dread (Midnight Ink, 2012)
1. Q: Where do generals hide their armies? A: In their sleevies.
2. Q: Why did the elephant paint its toenails red? A: So it could hide in the cherry tree.
"You are going to learn a lot about me by finding out what my two favorite jokes are," warned Lourey, the St. Cloud, Minnesota-based author of the, thus far, eight-book Murder-by-the-Month series set in Battle Lake, Minnesota, and featuring PI Mira James. www.jesslourey.com
1. Q: What's the difference between geezers and tweezers? A: Tweezers still have a grip on things.
2. A doctor, a lawyer, and a geezer took a walk together. They started talking about the most important things they could do. The doctor said, “I’d like to cure cancer.” The lawyer nodded and added, “That’s important. I’d like to prove the innocence of all people wrongly jailed.” The geezer looked at the other two and said, “I’d like to find a restroom.”
3. Q: What’s the difference between a leprechaun and a geezer?” A: One has a pot of gold and the other is a pot of old.
4. Q: Why’d the geezer go to all the funerals in town? A: He was social networking.
5. Q: Do you know what a geezer triathlon is? A: You ride a stationary bike for a minute, take a walk to the Jacuzzi, and soak in the hot tub.
"Read them and groan," said Befeler, who in addition to his mystery series featuring 85-year-old protaganist Paul Jacobson, also speaks and teaches on topics concerning aging. The "politically incorrect geezer jokes" here are just a few of the gems from Befeler's novels, in which Paul and his granddaughter Jennifer delight in trading yuks. www.mikebefeler.com
The Girl Next Door (Minotaur Books, 2012)
1. A writer and an editor are trudging through the desert, near death from dehydration. In the distance, they see an oasis. They think it must be a mirage but, no, as they get closer they see it's real and dash toward it.
The writer wets his parched face and begins drinking deeply from the water, which is sweet and cool and perfect. But when he looks up he sees the editor is... pissing in it?
"What are you doing?!?" the writer cries.
"Don't worry," the editor says. "I'm making it better."
Brad Parks, once a journalist for the Washington Post and The Star Ledger, introduced veteran reporter Carter Ross in Faces of the Gone in 2009, a debut that garnered the author both a Shamus and Nero award. You can read a review of the fourth book in the series, The Good Cop (2013) in the Mystery Scene reviews. www.bradparksbooks.com