As a journalist and a writer, I care very much about protecting copyright laws.
A writer should not have his or her words hijacked into other works such as plays, TV series, etc., or published by another without his or her permission.
But how long should a copyright last? And when does a work, or a body of work, go into public domain? Do we pay Shakespeare’s heirs for his plays? If we did, then whoever his descendants are must be wealthy.
Which brings me a lawsuit recently been filed over licensing fees for the Sherlock Holmes works of Arthur Conan Doyle.
First, Sherlock Holmes continues to be popular. This isn’t anything new as it seems that Holmes’ game is afoot nearly every year with short stories, novels, and novellas.
Filmed versions of Sherlock are at the movies with Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective and Jude Law as John Watson. CBS’ Elementary has the odd pairing of Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. BBC’s Sherlock reboots the tales with Sherlock played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) as Watson, who, in the 21st century, blogs about their adventures.
Other shows such as CBS’ The Mentalist and A&E’s Psych are directly inspired by Sherlock’s powers of observation.
But now, more than 125 years, since the brilliant Sherlock came on the scene, some are wondering just how long those copyright laws must last.
Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of three wonderful volumes of the Annotated Sherlock Holmes and other books, has filed a civil complaint that states that “many licensing fees paid to the Arthur Conan Doyle estate have been unnecessary, since the main characters and elements of their story derived from materials published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by United States copyright law,” according to a New York Times story.
Klinger’s complaint, according to the New York Times, “stems from In the Company of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of Holmes-related stories by various authors, edited by Mr. Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a successful mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife.”
Klinger’s suit doesn’t challenge the fact that “Conan Doyle Estate Ltd. was “the sole and exclusive owner” of the material that remains under copyright.”
Nor is he trying to interfere “with the estate’s legitimate rights,” according to the newspaper. But Klinger said in the New York Times that “the stories in the new collection avoided drawing on elements introduced in any of the 10 Holmes stories published after Jan. 1, 1923, which remain under copyright until 2023.”
On the website Free-Sherlock.com, Klinger said: “It is true that some of Conan Doyle’s stories about Holmes are still protected by the U.S. copyright laws. However, the vast majority of the stories that Conan Doyle wrote are not. The characters of Holmes, Watson, and others are fully established in those fifty ‘public-domain’ stories. Under U.S. law, this should mean that anyone is free to create new stories about Holmes and Watson.”
More to the story is at the New York Times and at Free-Sherlock.
Now, this is just my opinion and no one else’s, but I think that Klinger has a point. Stories inspired by Sherlock are a vast difference from those that blatantly co-op a piece of work. What’s protection and what is greed?
Klinger’s work on Sherlock and the nearly 3,000-page Annotated volumes are more than just impressive; these three books show a scholar unmatched with a vast knowledge of his subject and an infinite attention to detail.
Those who have not read Laurie King’s wonderful series that began in 1994 with The Beekeeper's Apprentice, should do themselves a favor and order each of the 13 novels in this series. And start at the beginning. While King’s series pays homage to Sherlock and honor the character, King also deserves kudos for writing a series that both adults and young adults can savor. I would have loved a book such as The Beekeeper's Apprentice when I was 13 years old. Mary Russell would have been a kindred spirit for me.
It doesn’t matter how any of feel about this lawsuit—that’s for the courts to decide. Klinger and King have both brought renewed attention to Sherlock Holmes, showing that the Great Detective is timeless.
Writers such as John Shannon and Stieg Larsson get down to the dirty business of social commentary.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Courtesy Music Box Films.
Once upon a time, private eyes displayed about as much personal growth as rocks. Flinty-eyed investigators with hearts of stone and skulls to match were slugged, shot, and stabbed on a regular basis, while living on a steady diet of rotgut, cigarettes, and two-timing dames. They lived their lives in a series of such adventures, endlessly repeated, the consequences of their actions rarely even lasting to the end of the story—never mind the next one. Learning curves? Hah!
But the times change. While even long-running detective series characters such as Nero Wolfe or Sherlock Holmes (who got the whole thing going in the first place) evolved about as rapidly as continents drift, it’s no longer considered a cardinal sin for fictional characters—even private eyes—to acknowledge that scars, psychological, emotional and physical, don’t magically disappear between books.
Everything, you see, has consequences…
A case in point: the long-running Jack Liffey series by John Shannon, in which the personal trials and tribulations of finder-of-lost-children Liffey and his precocious adolescent daughter Maeve have become the bedrock upon which one of the most piercing social documents of Los Angeles in all of literature has been built.
More than a few writers have used the detective novel to get down to, as Van Morrison once put it, “what’s really, really wrong,” but few have been as tenacious and fierce about it as Shannon. Not content with yet another jaunt down the mean streets of the City of Angels, spouting reheated Chandler, Shannon’s long been after the whole enchilada: the crumbling infrastructure, the cultural, intellectual, and moral decay, the man-made and even the natural catastrophes that seem to plague Los Angeles. Things fall apart; the center—if there even is one anymore—doesn’t hold. Consequences.
But somehow Jack endures: be it collapsed lungs, deafness, mudslides, terrorist plots, existential angst, or steel plates in his skull. But each novel has left its mark. In his latest, On the Nickel (Severn House, $28.95), we find him rendered mute and wheelchair-bound, at least temporarily, from incidents related in the previous book, Palos Verde Blue (2009). With Maeve doing most of the legwork unbeknownst to a convalescing Jack, Shannon this time jabs his lance into the soft white underbelly of gentrification of our inner cities and the ruthless economic cleansing of the homeless.
Fans of David Simon’s acclaimed HBO television series The Wire will recognize the MO: the attention to detail across all political, cultural, and ethnical strata, the refusal to trivialize or dehumanize any group or viewpoint, the clamoring for accountability both institutional and personal. Shannon has managed, over 11 novels now, to constantly explore the fissures and cracks of a runaway American dream as exemplified by the shape-shifting metropolis of Los Angeles. Easy reading? Not always—Shannon aims unapologetically high, and a groaner of a coincidence that drops like a crowbar on a concrete floor halfway through On the Nickel will try many a reader’s patience, but ultimately, the author triumphs yet again, concluding his foray into the darkness with a nail-biter of a finale. It’s a potent reminder that actions, be they personal or political, have consequences. Serious food for thought for anyone who dares to look beyond the brain-dead sound bites and hollow talking points that masquerade as journalism these days.
Chickens also come home to roost in the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf, $27.95), a current bestseller as fierce as Shannon’s books but even more epic in scope. Of course the star of the series is the odd couple Swedish investigative team of middle-aged business reporter Mikael Blomkvist and troubled antisocial punkette/hacker Lisbeth Salander, but the underlying theme—that unchecked corruption and greed and hate have far-reaching repercussions—is nailed home with savage fury in the final novel in the bestselling Millenium trilogy. Even New York Times columnist Frank Rich has noticed something savvy readers have known for years: that the private eye novel may be one of the last, best places to pry the lid off a society and get a good look at its inner workings. A few months ago, Rich belatedly saluted The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first novel, for its forward-looking take on our current financial meltdown, and how it tapped so well into the growing populist anger towards those who got us into our current mess. Rich sees such classic Larsson/Blomkvist rants as “A bank director who blows millions on foolhardy speculations should not keep his job” and “A managing director who plays shell company games should do time” as eerily prescient, and gleefully noted that the villains in the novels, “whether they literally commit murder or not… are bankers and industrialists.”
Nor does Rich—or Larsson—show much sympathy for those apologists and snake oil salesmen in the media who “regurgitate the statements issued by C.E.O.’s and stockmarket speculators.”
But in Hornet’s Nest it’s not just the moneymen and their lackeys in the media and government who wear the black hats, but also the alleged good guys in Sweden’s intelligence community. Members of “the Section,” a small, secretive sub-agency, are so intent on protecting themselves from discovery—and so in love with their sacred cause—that they’re willing to ignore the laws of the very nation and way of life they purport to defend.
That sort of perverted self-righteousness and air-fouling hypocrisy is likely to waft up from all sides of the currently fractured and increasingly dumbed-down political spectrum, but back in the thinking world, people are simply fed up with watching the suits and their mouthpieces win—and with people who think the rules of the land, up to and including its constitution, can be easily tossed on the trash heap if it suits their purposes. And a media who have reduced serious political discourse to the intellectual level of professional wrestling.
Lisbeth, get out your tattoo needles...
I don’t know. Getting angry feels good, but getting smart is better—and in the long run, it’s vital to a civilized society. Maybe we all should turn off the 24-hour “news” stations and read a lot more private eye fiction.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Holiday Issue #117.
Is there any reader who doesn’t know the name James Patterson?
Patterson’s millions of mega-best sellers, many of which are written with a co-author, are published at an astounding rate.
While Patterson is best known for his thrillers, especially his Alex Cross novels, he has written several children’s books and, as a result, has done much for literacy among young readers.
Patterson is teaming up with two-time Miami Heat champion and New York Times bestselling author Dwyane Wade (A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger than Basketball) for a national online webcast for kids across the country. The project is called One on One: Fundamentals with Dwyane Wade and James Patterson.
One on One will highlight the importance of reading for success in life.
It will air at 1 p.m. April 25, 2013, (EST).
The One on One webcast will be available free of charge to schools, libraries, and for home viewing. Visit www.JamesPattersonEvents.com, where viewers can sign up in advance to watch. Children across the country can submit questions to their favorite author and their favorite NBA superstar in advance via social media. Again, details here.
The webcast will also include special messages from other NBA All-Stars encouraging kids to read.
To gear up for the webcast, the two authors have other events lined up.
On March 21, Patterson and Wade are scheduled to talk about reading with students at Ponce De Leon Middle School in Coral Gables, Florida. Their moderator will be moderated by six-time Emmy Award winner and Miami Heat courtside reporter Jason Jackson.
While Patterson and his publisher, Hachette Book Group, will make a major donation of books in conjunction with the webcast, there is a chance even more kids will receive a book. On March 27, Wade and the Heat are scheduled to play against the Bulls in Chicago. For every point Wade scores, Hachette Book Group will donate 1,000 copies of Patterson books to young readers in the Miami-Dade school system.
While I always root for the Heat—hey, I live in Florida—I will be rooting for the team, and especially Wade, even more.
In the press release, Patterson offered this very timely quote:
Patterson said, “Getting our kids reading is a matter of life and death; this is not about grades or what college these kids might be going to. This is about saving kids’ lives, and if we don’t get our kids reading now, many of them aren’t going to make it. We have to get that light to go off in their heads at an early age — before or around the middle school years. I’m so glad I’m partnering with someone like Dwyane, who gets it — that getting our kids reading is preparing them to face the world.”
According to a press release, One on One is in collaboration with NBA Cares, the Wade’s World Foundation, ReadKiddoRead and Hachette Book Group.
What do you get when you put together Ridley Pearson, Jacqueline Winspear, Patricia Smiley, James O. Born, Paul Levine, (left) and Cornelia Reed?
You get a highly entertaining blog called NakedAuthors.com in which each author had his or her own day to post and used that forum to write some unexpected musings.
Born once wrote about Susan Boyle, when she was first on Britain’s Got Talent. Winspear tackled body scanners at the airport. Reed wrote about beauty tips from Doris Day that lead to her discussion about "odd little lines and giblets from books" she'd read.
The blog's subtitle—The Naked Truth About Literature & Life—made a lot of sense.
These naked authors had fun with the blog and seemed to love going off in tangents. And while at first it seemed odd to have authors who write such different books blogging together, it made sense in the context of the genre. After all, most mystery writers love diversity in stories and authors.
But in March 2010, the naked authors called it quits.
Too much to do—books to write, personal duties to take care of, and, of course, that general excuse, life itself.
But now they are back.
Three years after calling a halt, the naked authors are getting the band back together and hitting the road. Or, just writing
And I, for one, am glad to see this blog again.
A weekly whodunit so lighthearted it nearly floated away.
Gene Barry as Amos Burke on Burke's Law (ABC, 1963-1966). Photo courtesy ABC.
In today’s TV world a crime show about a millionaire playboy LAPD homicide detective who shuttles around town in a chauffered Rolls-Royce, all the while dribbling out pithy bon mots, would be hooted off the airwaves. But more than 40 years ago there was Burke’s Law, a weekly whodunit so lighthearted it nearly floated away. Whimsical as it was, though, Burke’s Law set many of the conventions for mystery series that would follow.
Premiering on ABC in September 1963, Burke’s Law was the first notable success for super-producer Aaron Spelling. More importantly, it pioneered the concept of the special-guest-star mystery show, in which a roster of A (and sometimes B) list celebrities would pop up in cameos, usually as suspects. Later series including Columbo, Ellery Queen, and Murder, She Wrote would all gain traction through this technique, as would the subsequent Spelling hits The Love Boat and Fantasy Island.
The Burke of Burke’s Law was Captain Amos Burke, played by Gene Barry, an actor often described as television’s Cary Grant. Barry had filled out his Grant application a few years earlier with the Western series Bat Masterson, but it was his debonair, witty performance as Amos Burke that really cemented his image. There was more of Hugh Hefner than Joe Friday in this L.A. copper, as announced by the breathy female voice that purred, “It’s Burke’s Lawwww,” at the top of each show. The Law of Burke’s Law was the steady string of pertinent aphorisms Burke would toss off extemporaneously as the rules under which he operated.
During working hours Capt. Burke seemed to have little time or patience for going into the office, preferring instead to stay in his luxurious 19-room mansion and getting called out to cases by his detective sidekicks, the young and overachieving Tim Tilson (played by Gary Conway), and the veteran flatfoot Les Hart (Regis Toomey, who had played so many policemen in his long career that he should have filed for a departmental pension). The fourth member of Burke’s team was his chauffeur Henry, played by Leon Lontoc, with the added help on occasion of the efficient and (naturally) gorgeous Sgt. Ames, played by Eileen O’Neill.
Each episode of Burke’s Law, at least for its first two seasons, bore the title “Who Killed” followed by the victim’s name or description. This was a carry-over from Amos Burke’s first appearance on television in a 1961 episode of The Dick Powell Show titled “Who Killed Julie Greer?” Powell himself played a slightly less suave version of Burke alongside a stellar cast that included Edgar Bergen (sans Charlie McCarthy), Nick Adams, Lloyd Bridges, Mickey Rooney, Carolyn Jones (as the victim) and Ronald Reagan. Burke’s assistants were Detectives Phil Winslow and Joe Nolan, played by a pre-Disney Dean Jones and Ed Platt, who would later become the Chief of Get Smart. Leon Lontoc was the only actor to make the transition to the series.
From a procedural standpoint, Burke’s Law depicted the workings of a major city police department about as accurately as Batman. In fact, the show might be considered the anti-Dragnet: The stories were not only false, many of them bordered on the absurd. One of the hallmarks of the series was that the characters played by the guest stars, ranging from rarely televised movie icons like Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Swanson, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke to comedians such as Don Rickles, Paul Lynde, and Buster Keaton, all ran toward the eccentric. In fact, some ran right past the eccentric and dove straight into the downright batty. In this aspect the show was closer to Britain’s The Avengers, which also presented a decidedly mad, upper-class world spinning around its sane protagonists, than anything found on American television at the time. It also offered Barry the chance to act as perpetually bemused straight man to the parade of wackos. (Just try, for example, to imagine how Jack Webb and Harry Morgan would have handled the sight of demented gardener Burgess Meredith gleefully dropping a leg of lamb into the maw of an agitated carnivorous plant, which he did in the season one episode “Who Killed Jason Shaw?”)
The epitome of bizarre spoofery may have been the 1964 episode “Who Killed Supersleuth?” which featured a laundry list of classic detectives, Carl Reiner as the deerstalker-donning Inspector House (get it?), Ed Begley as Belgian detective Bascule Doirot, Thomas Gomez as portly Caligula Fox, and J. Carrol Naish laboring under outrageous Asian makeup as Mr. Toto, all struggling to solve a murder. One can only wonder if Neil Simon tuned in that night to see Reiner, his former Your Show of Shows compatriot, and filed the idea away for his 1976 feature Murder by Death.
Not exactly camp, Burke’s Law might best be described as smirk, yet somehow it remained sophisticated and oddly cool in a wink-wink sort of way. The show also spawned another tongue-in-cheek crime series, Honey West, which featured Anne Francis as TV’s first female PI. Honey (who was based on a novel series by G.G. Fickling) made her first appearance as a character in a 1965 episode of the show.
By then, though, Burke’s Law itself had been revamped to cash in on the red-hot spy craze. Now titled Amos Burke, Secret Agent, the show depicted Burke as working for a government department headed by a shadowy figure called The Man. Tilson, Hart, Ames, and Henry were all left behind, as was the uniform “Who Killed...?” episode titles. The producers might have been hoping for an American version of the British series Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), which had debuted stateside in April 1965, but what they got was a mishmash of ideas that ran last in the lighter-side-of-spying- Olympics, behind The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and even The Wild, Wild West. The show should have been re-titled “Who Killed Burke’s Law?” since everything that had made the exploits of Capt. Burke so distinctive was gone, except for the Rolls. Amos Burke, Secret Agent survived only one more season.
Burke’s Law may have been gone but it was not forgotten. In 1994, 31 years after it premiered, the show was revived under its original title. Amos Burke was once more with the LAPD, and Gene Barry was back in the role (though he was now considerably past retirement age), and his sidekick was his detective son, Peter, played by Peter Barton. Unfortunately, the attempt to recapture the fondly remembered magic failed and the heavy-handed revival limped through only one season on CBS.
When seen these days, Burke’s Law can be viewed both as a palimpsest from which subsequent mystery programs were struck and an icon of an underappreciated era of American television when imagination and offbeat, bizarre humor were given equal time with the more conventional likes of Lawrence Welk and The Virginian. It is a time capsule to be sure, but also a window into a period when American television was arresting, maybe even a little surreal, but always drop-dead entertaining.
Middle right: Gypsy Rose Lee as Miss Bumpsy Cathcart and Gene Barry as Amos Burke in “Who Killed Vaudeville” (1964). Bottom left: Anne Francis as Honey West on “Who Killed the Jackpot?” (1965). Burke’s Law: Season One, Vols. 1 & 2 (VCI Entertainment, $29.99 each) is available on DVD.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #108.
As a screenwriter, Alexander Söderberg wrote adaptations of novels, such as those by Camilla Läckberg and Åke Edwardsson, for Swedish television. Söderberg now makes his debut as a novelist with the newly released The Andalucian Friend.
In The Andalucian Friend, a Swedish nurse becomes involved with an attractive patient who, unknown to her, heads a crime syndicate. This quiet nurse is suddenly at the center of a global turf war that includes Spanish drug runners, German gangsters, Russian hit men, and Swedish cops. And the gangsters aren't the most amoral.
Here’s a quick question and answer interview with Alexander Söderberg.
Q: What myths about Sweden does your novel refute?
A: It’s interesting, I don’t think of my novel as making any grand statements about Sweden. Sweden is just one piece of a rather large puzzle in The Andalucian Friend. I think of this book more in terms of the characters, and the consequences of their decisions, than where it’s set.
Q: Who do you read?
A: While writing, I usually don’t read much. Favorite authors come and go. And so do genres. When it comes to crime and thrillers, Lehane and Ellroy are great but many more as well. There is an abundance of good writers. When it comes to more literary books I appreciate JM Coetzee. The other day I read a book about trees. It is called Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by the late Roger Deakin. Amazing in a way that one can’t explain. Just beautiful.
Q: What legacy do you hope your novels leave?
A: Enjoy the read, and go on with your life as it was before.
Q: Your criminals are involved in a global turf war. What did you base this on?
A: As I got to know the characters, it became clear to me how they would act, whether admirably or not.
Q: What is the status of the screen version of The Andalucian Friend?
A: A screenwriter is writing as we speak. Can’t wait to read it.
As a critic of mystery fiction, I have been guilty in the past several years of not giving as much attention as I should have to one very important category of the genre—the paperback original.
This wasn’t always the case. Back when the newspaper’s books sections consisted of two whole pages—and I could review as many books a week as I could read—I tried to have a paperback roundup a few times a year.
Fortunately, Mystery Scene regularly focuses on paperback originals and this category has loyal readers. Nor do best-sellers lists ignore paperback originals.
After all, what’s more convenient than slipping a paperback into a bag to enjoy on a plane, the beach, waiting in line or wherever you are. Even handier than a tablet.
So here is an ode to the paperback original and a quick look at some authors whose works continue to elevate this category.
Alison Gaylin: Gaylin’s Into the Dark continues her series about missing persons investigator Brenna Spector, a missing persons investigator afflicted with Hyperthymestic Syndrome, a rare disorder that enables her to remember every moment of every day of her life. That can overwhelm a person, but makes for a good detective.
Wendy Corsi Staub: The prolific Staub has written 80 novels under her own name and her pseudonym Wendy Markham. Shadowkiller weaves a nightmare of terror for a young woman that reaches from New York to the Caribbean islands. Her 2012 novel Sleepwalker is a finalist for the 2013 Mary Higgins Clark Award.
Dean James: Agatha Award-winning James—not James Dean the actor—has a dual persona. As Miranda James, he writes about Charlie Harris, a widower who moves from Texas to Mississippi following the death of his wife. Subtitled “Cat in the Stack Mysteries,” the four novels in this series follow librarian Charlie and his Maine Coon cat Diesel that he walks on a leash. The novels include Murder Past Due and Out of Circulation, currently is on the best sellers list. As Dean James, he wrote four novels about Simon Kirby-Jones, an American vampire who moved to a quaint English village. Dean James also has written the Wanda Nell Culpepper series under the name of Jimmie Ruth Evans and the Emma Diamond series as Honor Hartman.
Denise Swanson: Swanson delivers lively, light and quite insightful looks at small town life in her two series. Swanson weaves her amateur sleuths into solid plots with likable characters who never slide into caricature. Swanson, who has been nominated for the Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, has two series. School psychologist Skye Denison who lives in a small Illinois town appears in 15 novels, the latest of which is Murder of the Cat's Meow. Devereaux Sinclair runs an old-fashioned dime store—remember them?—in her small Missouri hometown in the two novels in the Devereaux's Dime Store
Mysteries. The latest is Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death.
P.J. Parrish: Parrish, who has been nominated for an Edgar and won an Anthony, are two sisters, Kris Montee and Kelly Nichols, whose exciting, gripping stories are filled with realistic characters. Their novels’ seamless plots meld with a heart-felt look at a man who has often been an outsider and found his calling in being as a detective. Louis Kincaid, a biracial young man who grew up in foster homes, comes to grips with himself and his background in each novel. Parrish’s 10th novel in this series, Heart of Ice soars as a tale about a man reclaiming his life and how so much of what we care about can be lost by carelessness, misplaced priorities and obsession, as I said in a recent review.
Elaine Viets: Although Viets’ “Dead End Jobs” series featuring heroine Helen Hawthorne are now in hardcover, the author also writes a second series about mystery shopper Josie Marcus that are available in paperback. Viets’ trademark humor and energetic storytelling highlight this series. But the Josie Marcus series isn’t just about great shopping, it also looks at a single mother trying to support her very bright daughter while dealing with a dating life and her own mother. Although Josie’s personal life is about to change, Viets continues to give Josie challenges, and the wit it takes to make it in this world. Josie’s latest adventures are Murder Is a Piece of Cake.
Rebecca Chance: The British Chance’s novels are set in the glitzy world of fashion, trust funds and girls gone wild. Appealing characters and sly wit punctuate Chance’s novels that include Killer Heels, Bad Girls, Bad Sisters and Divas.
Susan Elia MacNeal: MacNeal’s debut Mr. Churchill's Secretary has been nominated for an Edgar this year. In this novel, young American Maggie Hope begins her job as a secretary to the newly appointed Prime Minister Winston Churchill in London. But Maggie’s secretarial skills aren’t her only abilities as readers find in the second in this series, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, which also came out last year, and His Majesty’s Hope, which comes out in May 2013.
Jennifer McMahon: McMahon’s novels have landed on the New York Times best-sellers list for a good reason. She complements her expert plotting with a sincere look at the complicated nature of relationships. Her fifth novel, The One I Left Behind, is a mesmerizing psychological thriller that looks at childhood trauma and the power of the past. Throw in a hint of the gothic, and The One I Left Behind is even more fascinating.
Harlan Coben’s latest novel Six Years just came out this week and Coben made his annual appearance on NBC’s The TODAY show.
As usual, Coben’s discussion about his novel was sophisticated and witty.
And he revealed that Six Years already is making news. And we don’t mean just good reviews.
Oscar nominee and Tony winner (and personal favorite) Hugh Jackman, left, is “attached,” as they say in Hollywood, to star in Six Years.
No director or screenwriter have been named yet, but this is a good start.
Hugh—I just want to call him Hugh—would play Jake Fisher, a college professor whose great love of his life married another man.
In Six Years, Jake watched his beloved Natalie exchange vows and after the wedding she made him promise to leave her alone.
Six years later, Jake reads the obit of Natalie’s husband and makes plans to attend the funeral. But the grieving widow isn’t Natalie.
When he tries to find Natalie, he is caught up in an explosive situation beyond his control.
Personally, I think Hugh would make a great lead in Six Years, but then I think he could just read the phone book and I would be mesmerized.
Having just finished Six Years, I see Jake in a whole new light.
Sherlock’s younger sister takes a bow in Nancy Springer's delightful Enola Holmes mystery series for young adults.
If one doesn’t have a young lady of tender years among one’s acquaintances, one would be advised to arrange an introduction to such a personage at one’s earliest convenience. Then introduce her to Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes series and one may likely be told that one is “awesome!”
Wry, witty, and wily, Enola is pretty awesome too. The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye, released in May by Philomel Books, is the teenage sleuth’s sixth and final exploit following in her famous, much-older brother’s footsteps. Or rather, Sherlock has finally caught up with his headstrong sibling, who has kept one step ahead of him since her 2006 debut, The Case of The Missing Marquess.
Springer writes for middle-grader readers, yet her stories are a shade darker than the adult tales spun by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Great Detective never had to confront the soul-searing questions that fuel Enola’s actions and her self-doubt: Why did her mother abandon her on her birthday, with no explanation but a handmade book of ciphers? And will Mum ever return?
As Enola searches for the answers, she finds other lost souls, including (in her third outing, The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets) a kidnapped Dr. Watson. All the while, she is also evading Sherlock and eldest brother Mycroft, who aim to send the country-bred urchin to boarding school to acquire “some accomplishments, social graces, some finish.”
Not the life her mother, an artist and Suffragette, would have wanted for her. But now Enola suspects that Mum had been preparing her for an even more painful fate. “You will do very well on your own, Enola,” she would tell me nearly every day as I was growing up. Is it any wonder then that she gave her only daughter a name that, backward, spells alone?
And is it any wonder that Enola has earned adolescent admirers not just in the United States but also in Japan, Israel, and elsewhere around the world? (However, the second book in the series, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, was banned in Poland for its socialist theme and its mention of Karl Marx.)
Among the loyalists are my twin nieces, Sarah and Rachel Prindle, discerning readers and writers of mystery and history and herstory. My nieces bonded with the feminist Enola so strongly that it was a little difficult borrowing the books in order to write this article.
“Will you bring them back?” asked Rachel, who likes to re-read her favorite parts of any book.
“Of course,” I said.
“How long do you need them?”
“Just a week or two.”
“Will you return them the day you finish, or...”
“I will hop in my carriage and return them forthwith, milady!”
That seemed to satisfy her.
Sarah also savors the series, but had one caveat. “I wish the author had made Sherlock more heartwarming from the beginning—but don’t tell her that!” she quickly added, worried that she might offend a fellow storyteller. “I’m glad that they all worked together to solve the final case.”
Eighteen-year-old Rachel and Sarah may be a bit above the series’ target audience— grades 6 to 9—but Enola has deservedly won fans well beyond the tween years. “I get more emails from adults than kids,” reports Springer. “Smart kids do enjoy the books, but don’t hear the echoes.”
Those echoes are from a time, not necessarily past, when women’s behavior were circumscribed by social conventions, by male expectations and—perhaps even more so—by the latest fashions. The series spans July 1888 to 1889, from Enola’s 14th birthday to her 15th, and in the process chronicles a London, both splendid and gritty, heading toward an uncertain new century. The city is moving toward modernity—The first public lady’s lavatory, near the British Museum! An underground train system!—yet clings to its outdated social structure.
“Back in the 1850s it was all very much about hoop skirts—very sedate and settled and sober,” says Springer. “But by 1880 it was the equivalent of the 1960s. Things were starting to fall apart, be rebelled against. People were in shock about what younger people were up to—such as young women on bicycles in bloomers or knickerbockers!”
Springer hadn’t expected to find herself passionate about that era. She created unique worlds in her earlier fantasy novels and dealt with 21st-century dilemmas in her young adult novels. Then she was off to Camelot, with I Am Mordred and I Am Morgan le Fay, which was guided by Michael Green, then a junior editor at Philomel, now its president and publisher. “One day, he took me for an expensive French lunch with real cloth napkins, so I knew my stock was high,” Springer says. “He talked to me about Jane Yolen’s Sherwood anthology and I, all by my very own self, got the idea for the Rowan Hood series.”
When Springer completed those four tales featuring Robin Hood’s daughter, Green nudged her in another direction. “He told me, ‘I want you to do something that is set in darkest London at the end of the 19th century in the time of Jack the Ripper,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What?!?’ Well, I read King Arthur and Robin Hood when I was a kid…. What else did I read that really stayed with me? Ah, Sherlock Holmes! So I figured out the dates, how he might have a teenage sister, and it all worked out perfectly.
“I knew instantly that her name was Enola. Alone. The name had fascinated me for a long time. My family moved to Gettysburg when I was 13 and a nearby town was named that after the founder’s mother. Since then I had been keeping an eye on Victorian names. There was Oscar Wilde’s younger sister, Isola—isolated. There was Perdita, the lost one. Dolores, the sad one…. I was thinking, ‘What are they trying to do to these women?’”
Certainly Holmes never said he didn’t have a sister. In “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” he says of Violet Hunter’s offer to be governess in the clearly sinister Rucastle household, “I confess that it is not the situation which I should like to see a sister of mine apply for.” Read into that what you wish.
Dr. Watson notes that Holmes was inhumanly close-lipped about his origins in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” in which the detective’s brother, Mycroft, the brilliant but slothful government insider, is first introduced and then seen or talked of in only three other stories. Holmes reveals only that “My ancestors were country squires....” and “my grandmother…was the sister of Vernet, the French artist.”
So Springer can have Enola claim that her parents were “a gentleman Rational logician and his well-bred artistic wife,” Lady Eudoria Vernet Holmes. Born “indecently late in Mother’s life” (at age 50), Enola sees her own existence as a scandal from which her brothers, at least 20 years older, would rightly disassociate themselves. Only with her mother’s disappearance does she learn that the estrangement began at her father’s funeral, when she was four: As the elder son, Mycroft legally took over the finances of the family estate, Ferndell Park, backed up by Sherlock. Chafing under such controls, their free-spirited mother made it clear her sons were no longer welcome at their birthplace. How she outsmarts her gifted sons turns out to be the means to Enola’s freedom.
Enola flees from Ferndell to the one place her brothers won’t expect the unsophisticated girl to go—London. Eventually Enola sets herself up as a finder of the lost, a “perditorian”—a job title made up by Springer, but perfect for her young sleuth’s skills and predilections.
She must pose as the assistant to her male boss, the nonexistent Dr. Leslie Ragostin, but no deerstalker cap or Inverness cape for Enola. “In so many strong-girl novels, the girl has to disguise herself as a boy,” says Springer. “I’d done that in Rowan Hood, but didn’t want to repeat it. To be a woman—even now, but more so then—meant to stick on a whole bunch of stuff, simply add a great deal of surplusage.”
So Enola stores a “steamer trunk’s worth of essentials” in the very sartorial tortures that Victorian women were subjected to—corsets, dress improvers, bust enhancers, hip regulators, and layers of over- and undergarments. She hides in plain sight on the city’s teeming streets under the curls of false bangs, pre-coiffed wigs, artfully applied cosmetics, emollients, tinctures, and theatrical prosthetics.
Enola also takes on the aspects of nearly every female role of the times: a widow, nun, match girl, secretary, scholar, gentlewoman, fashion plate. Through her eyes, we see how society treated each. But Enola’s most audacious camouflage is in some ways the most heartbreaking: The girl, whose features resemble most closely her brother Sherlock’s hawklike visage and describes her own body as stick-figure, transforms herself into a beauty. And face to face with the brother she both fears and adores, he doesn’t recognize her.
“Conan Doyle did me a tremendous favor by being a misogynist,” muses Springer. “Sherlock’s weakness is that he doesn’t pay attention to women whatsoever, so she can run circles around him simply by knowing all the feminine specialties and also how much one can stuff into a corset.”
Sherlock’s disinterest in romance is his undoing too. Since young people were not able to speak openly unless properly introduced, they spoke in code—messages were conveyed through the choice of flowers in a bouquet, or how the lady held her fan or handkerchief. Backward writing, codes, and ciphers also veiled communications. On innocuous notes, the colors of sealing wax and the placement of postage stamps spoke volumes. Enola picks up on these subtleties, and sees their dangers, invisible to her acclaimed brother.
Enola, too, is more sensitive to society’s inequities, the casual cruelties suffered by children and the “fairer sex,” the working class, and the destitute. As a newcomer to the city, she describes its offal-lined neighborhoods with awe and horror, as well as discovers the London beneath London, its tunnels and old rivers.
In The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, Enola learns secondhand of the gross mistreatment of soldiers during the Crimean War, 34 years earlier, when she joins forces with none other than Florence Nightingale—bedridden since 1857, but actively involved in political, military, and social reform.
“As in my book, it’s true that her home was a meeting house—the third House of Parliament,” says Springer. “But it’s a matter of scholarly argument as to why she chose to be an invalid after she returns from the Crimea.” So Enola discovers that Nightingale’s “illness” lets her avoid the social frivolities that would have interfered with her more important pursuits.
In Enola’s second investigation, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, a young noblewoman’s personality splits under such strain. “That was a symbol for the total repression of everything in women’s society,” says Springer. “I had in many ways a blessed and wonderful childhood. My father, God bless him, was Irish and had the gift of gab, and my mother was well educated. The whole house was full of books and no one tried to tell me what was appropriate to my age group. When I was ten, I was reading Gone with the Wind.
“But my family didn’t do emotions. I reached adulthood in a complete state of dissociation. I identify with Lady Cecily—she came from my own experience of being more than one person.”
Enola, too, finds Lady Cecily Alistair a kindred spirit and helps her escape from an arranged marriage in the fourth book, The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan.
But Springer relates even more strongly to her conflicted heroine. “Enola is probably the character closest to myself—a lot came naturally,” Springer reveals. “I was practically raised in the Victorian era. My mother didn’t have me until she was 40. And she didn’t actually run away, but she seemed to lose interest in me around age 14. I realize now that it was a combination of menopause and cancer, but we didn’t communicate.”
Like Lady Eudoria Holmes, though, her mother thought Springer would do very well on her own. “I ran free as a child, galloping through the woods and swamp. I was raised in Eden, so to speak,” she says, along a river in northwest New Jersey still surrounded by farmland and wildlife. Springer now lives—with her second husband, a pilot—on the Florida Panhandle along (coincidentally) Holmes Creek, among wolves, panthers, and water moccasins.
“The writing is what saved my life, just getting it all out. I started with fantasy [1975’s The Book of Suns, re-released in 1980 as The Silver Sun]. It was all about taking my hang-ups and giving them horses, swords, and names. Of course, I didn’t realize what I was doing until later.”
Also unbeknownst to Springer, her later contemporary young adult novels were veering toward suspense. “I had no idea I was writing mystery until I won an Edgar,” she says. Springer won two, for Toughing It (1994) and Looking for Jamie Bridger (1995). Her first Enola adventure as well as last year’s The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline were both nominated for Best Juvenile Mystery.
“I don’t consider myself talented in plotting mystery. I don’t do red herrings, subplots. I knew from the beginning how Sherlock would find Enola, but otherwise all I did was follow her around.”
That led to her finding out Enola’s and her mother’s fates in The Gypsy Good-bye. “I didn’t want the series to die with a whimper,” says Springer. “I wanted her to progress, so in each one she kept getting closer to Sherlock. It seemed right to stop at six.” But now she finds herself missing her young perditorian. “I would have happily written 20—I had so much fun!”
Still her creator has no plans to write more about Enola, especially not by reversing her boots on a return trip from Reichenbach Falls. But that doesn’t mean her readers can’t imagine her future.
“Sherlock Holmes has got to be the most alive fictional character ever created. People believe in him as a historical figure in a way that they don’t think of Tarzan, for instance,” Springer notes. “So I have had people come up to me and ask, ‘Did he really have a younger sister?’ And my only reply is: ‘She’s as real as he is.’”
And, one hopes, just as enduring.
All illustrations are details from the jackets of the Enola Holmes series published by Philomel.
A SELECTED NANCY SPRINGER READING LIST
The Enola Holmes Mysteries
The Case of the Missing Marquess, 2006
The Case of the Left-Handed Lady, 2007
The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, 2008
The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan, 2008
The Case of the Cryptic Crinoline, 2009
The Case of the Gypsy Good-bye, 2010
Other Mystery Novels
Toughing It, 1994
Looking for Jamie Bridger, 1995
Blood Trail, 2003
Possessing Jessie, 2010
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #116.
What do the Canadians know?
When it comes to involving crime fiction with realistic characters, believable plots and non-stop action, several Canadian authors stand out. But there are at least three Canadian authors who bring all that and add in a United States setting.
Blame these Canadians for keeping readers around the world up late at night.
In these three authors’ novels, the U.S. setting enhances the plot. Each author uses the U.S. scenery as if they were residents of the various states in their novels. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who reads crime fiction. After all, several American novelists write persuasively about England and other countries; as do international authors bring an insightful look at myriad countries in their novels.
Owen Laukkanen: Latest novel is Criminal Enterprise. Laukkanen’s 2012 debut The Professionals was my favorite debut of the year and seems to have set a tone for his series—focusing on the impact of the economic downturn. While that might not seem to be the basis of an exciting thriller, Laukkanen has made it so. His are action-packed stories that also are contemporary cautionary tales. Laukkanen also gives a vivid look at amorality, entitlement and consequences.
In The Professionals, four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends become kidnappers. For two years, they crisscross America, kidnapping businessmen just high enough in their company to be worth millions, but not so high-profile as to draw attention. Until they kidnap the wrong person. Here's a review I wrote of The Professionals.
In Criminal Enterprise, Laukkanen again looks at an everyman-turned-criminal. This time accountant Carter Tomlin loses his high-paying job and is in danger of losing his fancy house, expensive cars and his family. So he finds a more lucrative job that he likes better—robbing banks. As I said in a recent review of Criminal Enterprise: “While Laukkanen makes us care about his finely drawn characters, he never makes the criminals in his story totally sympathetic. The reader’s allegiance always is firmly on the side of the real heroes of Criminal Enterprise – FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state cop Kirk Stevens whose insight serves them well.” And, I don't know how to pronounce his name either.
Linwood Barclay: Latest novel: Trust Your Eyes. Barclay delivers affecting family thrillers in which he shows how a regular family can become caught up in situations beyond their control. In Trust Your Eyes, two brothers who are totally unlike stumble on a deadly conspiracy. In The Accident, Barclay shows how lost jobs, foreclosed homes and insurmountable debt can force people to act in ways they never imagined, including breaking the law.
As I said in a review, “After all, a few victimless crimes with a tax-free profit can be quite appealing. But, consequences often lurk around corners, a kind of hidden tax that can rear its ugly head without notice.” Here, the simplest of things, faux purses, are just the tip of a far-reaching crime syndicate.
Barclay’s Never Look Away starts at what should be a place of laughter and happiness – an amusement park but a young reporter and devoted family man will question every truth he holds dear before the day is finished.
Rick Mofina: Latest novel: They Disappeared. Mofina’s novels are quite varied, showing his versatility, affinity for solid plots and believable characters. In They Disappeared, a Montano couple on the verge of divorce brings their son to New York City for a vacation. But then the mother and son disappear and the father tries to find them and, along the way, realizes how much his marriage means to him.
A former journalist, Mofina brings a searing look at journalism and its ethics in the solidly plotted No Way Back in which a news story becomes personal for San Francisco crime reporter Tom Reed. Mofina’s paperback originals are suspenseful novels.
Mofina’s next stand-alone Into the Dark, set in Los Angeles, comes out in June. Into the Dark revolves around psychologist Claire Bowen who has devoted her life to helping troubled women rebuild theirs, but her quest for her own dream family crumbles when her husband’s past is revealed.
Reading and Writing Are the Same Thing
I'm a bookaholic, and I’ve always loved to read, ever since the days of Nancy Drew. But the fact is, now that I'm a writer, I read differently than I used to, and it's not a bad idea. In fact, I highly recommend it to anyone reading Mystery Scene, who’s undoubtedly the kind of person who is interested in writing, whether you're currently writing now or whether you're published or not.
Because now, I read to learn how to write. And I'm still learning how to write, after 20-odd books in 20-odd years.
Before I explain, let me state the obvious. My writerly voice is my own, whether I'm writing a standalone thriller, one of the installments in my Rosato & Associates series, or even the humorous nonfiction that I write with my daughter. I would never learn anything about voice from anybody else, even the best writer, because voice is something that comes from the soul. I honestly believe that you channel voice much more than it comes from anything external to you, beyond the limits of your skin. Voice is something you finally hear, and refine, when you let your doubts and insecurities fall away, and what's left is your truest and most authentic self, or your character's truest or authentic self. That said, when I read, I learn something about writing and writing technique from every single book I've read. And that is nowhere truer than in the genre we all love, which is crime fiction. I love reading widely in our genre—from thriller, cozy, serial murder books, police procedurals, and even dog detectives. I learn what not to do when the book isn't working for me as a reader, and I learn what to do when a book works perfectly. And when books by the same author work perfectly over time, that's when I learn the most.
The late Robert Parker.
So many things are right about Robert Parker's Spenser series that word count won’t permit me to go into detail. But there is one lesson in particular I learned from reading him, and I remind myself of it every day when I sit down at the computer. It's a technical one, but let me suggest that the importance of technique can never be underestimated, and a page-turner gets readers turning the pages only if the author is paying attention to technique. Reading Robert Parker taught me that what you leave out is just as important as what you put in, and maybe even more so. And in the Spenser books in particular, he leaves out many of the details that even the best writers conventionally include. Take a look at Small Vices, when you get a chance. In its first chapter, Spenser goes to see assistant DA Rita Fiore and they meet in her office. Parker tells you that the office is on the 39th floor, and after that he says absolutely nothing about what the office looks like. Nothing.
Parker mentions the view from the window, but that's it. Of course, as a writer, you needn't explain every detail about an office, and it’s axiomatic that if your character wouldn't notice the description, it would never be in the book, but Parker took it one step further, in that he kept even the relevant expository details—type of desk, bookshelves behind the desk, diplomas on the wall, noise from the hallway—completely out of the picture. When I first read this, I admit I was surprised. I wondered how the reader could picture the setting if Parker didn't let us know what it looked like. Then I realized that Parker is way smarter than I am. Because what he gained was a focus on character, plot, and story, and the fact is, it doesn't matter in the least what the office looked like, to Spenser or to the reader. What I learned from reading Robert Parker brought me to the realization that reading and writing are the same thing. I say this because I used to feel guilty reading when I should've been working, and then I came to understand that even when I was reading, I was working. Writing is a job we teach ourselves, and we’re learning it when we read, as well as when we write. And that's why we can learn from reading Parker’s, and others', books.
So thank you, Robert Parker.
And thanks to the other authors who write crime fiction, whose books I devour. Some are my friends, but all are my teachers.
Lisa Scottoline is the New York Times bestselling author and Edgar award-winning author of 20 novels, including the Rosato & Associates series featuring an all-women law firm in Philadelphia. She also writes a weekly column with her daughter Francesca Serritella for the Philadelphia Inquirer titled "Chick Wit" which is a witty and fun take on life from a woman's perspective. Lisa's accomplishments all pale in comparison to what she considers her greatest achievement, raising, as a single mom, her daughter.
Author website: scottoline.com
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews April 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.
Our critics pick some of their favorite reads from the past year
ROBIN AGNEW, reviewer
VALLEY OF ASHES
Cornelia Read, Grand Central, $24.99
I love Cornelia Read’s voice and her central character. I’d follow her anywhere. I love that she combines a twisty plot with her sharply observed view of the world.
A KILLING IN THE HILLS
Julia Keller, Minotaur, $24.99
This is an amazing storyteller with a heartbreaking setting. Wonderful mother-daughter tension. It reminded me of Sharyn McCrumb’s great Ballad series.
Tim O’Mara, Minotaur, $24.99
What a great new voice! This is the story of an ex-teacher, now a cop, set in a fabulously characterized and populated Brooklyn. Tight plotting, terrific writing.
OLINE H. COGDILL, contributor
AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $26.99
A suburban madam comes to terms with her career choice.
LIVE BY NIGHT
Dennis Lehane, William Morrow, $27.99
A lean, tightly focused epic that looks at Prohibition and the organized crime that flourished because of it. Lehane’s tenth novel goes beyond the life of crime, skirting that fine line between glorifying the illegal and showing the humanity behind even mobsters. With action that moves from Boston to Ybor City, Florida, to Cuba, the novel examines our history and morality in an amoral world.
Gillian Flynn, Crown, $25.00
A wife’s disappearance leads to the disintegration of what seems like a perfect marriage.
THE CUTTING SEASON
Attica Locke, Harper, $25.99
The changing face of racism and classism intersect with the past and present on a Louisiana antebellum mansion that’s managed as a tourist stop by an African-American woman whose ancestors were slaves on the plantation. This artificial look at the past may be impinged by a corporation that has been buying up the surrounding land and hiring illegal laborers instead of local workers.
THE BLACK BOX
Michael Connelly, Little, Brown and Co., $27.99
Twenty years after his debut in The Black Echo, Harry Bosch still seems fresh.
JOE SCARPATO, contributor
COP TO CORPSE
Peter Lovesey, Soho Crime, $25.00
A new Peter Diamond mystery is always a reason to rejoice, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Apparently a sniper is killing off policemen walking their beat. After two are killed and a note appears threatening another murder, Diamond needs to get it stopped. Could the culprit be one of his own? A fast-paced mystery that puts Diamond at odds with some of his own people.
THE GOLDEN SCALES
Parker Bilal, Bloomsbury USA, $25.00
A tough PI down on his luck in modern Cairo is asked to locate the missing son of one of the most important men in the country. Think Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. Think old-time detective novel in a new setting. I may have coined a new genre: Egyptian noir!
THE MEMORY OF BLOOD
Christopher Fowler, Bantam, $25.00
When a baby is found murdered in a locked room during an after-performance party of theater people, the Peculiar Crimes Unit of London steps in to solve the mystery. More macabre murders follow, and all involve weird Punch and Judy dolls. Great dialog between detectives Bryant and May, and an old-time mystery ending with all of the suspects gathered in one room.
DICK LOCHTE, contributor
In addition to John Grisham’s The Racketeer, which I reviewed, here are my top three audiobooks for 2012.
Jesse Kellerman, read by Kirby Heyborne,
Penguin Audio, 9 CDs, 11 hours, unabridged, $39.95
Jesse Kellerman’s tale of an unsuccessful “serious” novelist suddenly asked to fill the shoes of a James Patterson–like best-selling phenom manages to be both darkly humorous and suspenseful; along with the benefits of fame, he winds up caught in a thriller much like the ones he’s now being asked to write. Kirby Heyborne’s talent for giving voice to weak and confused protagonists is put to much better use here than on the incredibly overrated Gone Girl.
THE FALLEN ANGEL
Daniel Silva, read by George Guidall,
Harper Audio, 9 CDs, 10.5 hours, unabridged, $39.99
Faced with a murder in the Vatican where he’s restoring a Caravaggio painting, Silva’s hero Gabriel Allon indulges in some classic deduction while simultaneously trying to head off a terrorist attack on the Holy See. Reader Guidall nicely matches Allon’s world-weary cynicism and displays a flair for Middle Eastern and European accents.
Tana French, read by Stephen Hogan,
Recorded Books, 17 CDs, 20 hours, unabridged, $38.49
The year’s best in my opinion. French’s third novel about the Dublin murder squad brings a former supporting character, investigator Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, to center stage with a heart-rending tale of honor and duty brilliantly narrated by the Irishborn Stephen Hogan.
BETTY WEBB, contributor
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
Nathan Larson, Akashic Books, $15.95
The Nervous System remains stuck in my mind because of protagonist Dewey Decimal, a half-nuts man living in the ruins of New York’s Central Library, who believes evil forces in the US government have implanted a chip in his brain that “messes with his memory.” Poor old Dewey also has a thing about germs and carries around backpacks full of hand sanitizer to make certain no microscopic creepy-crawly makes his life worse than it already is. And amazingly, while trying to survive in a mostly destroyed Manhattan, he retains enough wit to solve crimes. If Dewey isn’t the detective of your dreams, then let him be the detective of your nightmares.
THE LAST POLICEMAN
Ben H. Winters, Quirk Books, $14.95
An asteroid hurtles toward a doomed Earth in The Last Detective, and most people have reacted to the grim news by either working their way through their bucket list or committing suicide. Not New Hampshire Detective Hank Palace, who continues to do his job in whatever time remains left. Palace’s determination to do the right thing while surrounded by catastrophe is stirring, and it’s a great reminder that honor, and justice can survive in even the worst circumstances. This last detective’s gallantry will stick with you long after you’ve turned the last page.
THE LOLA QUARTET
Emily St. John Mandel, Unbridled Books, $24.95
The odd man out—as the saying goes—on my list is The Lola Quartet, where bad choices made by several music students come back to haunt them in later years. While the book jumps backward and forward in time, and from character to character, it is Anna who sets everything in motion when her damaged dreams result in murder. Author Emily St. John Mandel is one of the most overlooked writers working today, and it is mystifying that she hasn’t yet copped a major literary award. The Lola Quartet follows up last year’s The Singer’s Gun, another breath-taker, which proves that The Lola Quartet is not just a flash in the pan—it is proof that Mandel is overdue for the kind of recognition her books deserve.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #128.
Bill Kennedy, contributor to this article, baseball fan, and author of the PI novel Curveball, noted that baseball has "a long history, dramatic plotlines, and zany characters." Popular in the US since the 1850s, the larger-than-life characters, thrills, and sociopolitical context have been ample inspiration for countless mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels.
In honor of America's favorite pastime (and we do mean, reading mysteries), Mystery Scene asked our dream team of baseball crime writers to share their favorite baseball-themed mysteries, thrillers, and suspense picks. Read on for their home-run recommendations.
Troy Soos is the author of the Mickey Rawlings baseball mystery series centered on the exploits of a young baseball player in the early 20th century. The six-book series, which began with Murder at Fenway Park in 1994, has just been re-released by Kensington Books. www.kensingtonbooks.com
Strike Three You're Dead
by R.D. Rosen
Walker & Co., 1984
One of my favorite baseball mysteries is Richard D. Rosen's Strike Three, You're Dead, which I believe won an Edgar. What I liked about Rosen's book was that a solid mystery was at the heart of the novel. Sometimes when a book has a particular theme or setting the mystery takes a backseat to the atmosphere or period. Rosen included enough baseball for an interesting background while maintaining focus on the mystery.
(R.D. Rosen's five-book Harvey Blissberg series has been re-released by Open Road Media.)
If I Never Get Back
by Darryl Brock
Not a typical mystery, but a baseball-themed novel that I particularly enjoyed is If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, which involves the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. If I Never Get Back featured a real team and historical figures (which is what I do with the Mickey Rawlings series), but Brock expanded the possibilities of the novel beyond that of most mysteries.
(Brock's hero, reporter Sam Fowler, also returns in the follow-up novel, Two In the Field.)
A terrific collection of baseball mystery short stories is Murderers' Row, edited by Otto Penzler, which includes stories by Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Max Allan Collins, and Lawrence Block. The short story collection represents quite a variety of approaches to a baseball-themed mystery, demonstrating that it is a rich subgenre. I'm also fond of the short story format in general, because the writing is usually so sharp and tight.
(Short story fans looking for more baseball tales will also want to check out Murderers' Row: Orginal Baseball Stories, Vol. 2)
Jen Estes is the author of Big Leagues and the Cat McDaniel Mystery Series about a sleuthing female sportswriter. A former baseball blogger and freelance sportswriter herself, Estes currently lives in Illinois with her husband and cat. www.jenestes.com
Mickey Rawlings Series
by Troy Soos
Author Troy Soos' Mickey Rawlings baseball mystery novels are a personal favorite. The series originally debuted in the '90s, but was just released by Kensington Books in a reprint and ebook. Set in the era of early 20th-century baseball, the series is timeless fun for baseball fans.
Kate Henry Mystery Series
by Alison Gordon
Alison Gordon, one of Canada's first female sportswriters, penned the Kate Henry mystery series, which like mine, follows a female sportswriter dipping her heels into amateur sleuthing.
(The first book in the five-book series, The Dead Pull Hitter, begins, "I'm Katherine Henry. My friends call me Kate. I am a baseball writer by trade...I'm good at my job, to the active disappointment of some of my male colleagues, who have been waiting for me to fall on my face since the day I walked into my first spring training. I am also the only woman on the team plane who doesn't serve drinks.")
(Readers who enjoy Schatz's fast-paced Marshall Connors series will also want to be on the lookout for the first book in a new baseball-themed series from the author, Liars Ball.)
For younger mystery readers, David A. Kelly writes a great series entitled Ballpark Mysteries. As a Cubs fan, I adored The Wrigley Riddle (Random House, 2013), even if I am a couple decades older than the target audience.
Dorothy Seymour Mills
Dorothy Jane Mills is a writer, editor, and sports historian who writes baseball books as Dorothy Seymour Mills, including the Oxford University Press three-volume baseball series and the excellent historical baseball mystery novel Drawing Card (McFarland, 2012), about a woman ballplayer. www.dorothyjanemills.com
It's not a mystery, but in baseball literature, my favorite is Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc. It's technically fantasy, I believe, but it drew me in completely, and I somehow found myself accepting the mysterious coming-alive of a dreamed-up baseball league. When fantasy leagues began to be popular for baseball fans to play, I remembered the way I found it possible to believe in Coover's league and could understand how baseball fans get so caught up in the leagues they themselves create.
As the author of a recently published baseball-oriented PI novel called Curveball (Attica Books, 2012) featuring a detective-narrator who is a former player for the Chicago Cubs, Bill Kennedy has been interested in the baseball-mystery connection for a long time. Kennedy is a former English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, though, he says, "Sadly, I’ve never pitched for the Cubs." www.atticabooks.com
William L. DeAndrea’s 1982 mystery uses baseball as a window to a particular time and place, in this case, New York in the early 1950s. The evocative title refers to the late-inning power that propelled the Yankees to so many victories during the team’s golden age. This fine old-school mystery begins with the murder of a notorious McCarthyite Congressman at Yankee Stadium. Former Yankee farmhand and wounded Korean War veteran Russ Garrett teams up with a tough New York homicide detective to solve the murder. Their investigation leads to some fascinating twists and turns, including a plot to murder Mickey Mantle. The Mick, Yogi Berra, and other baseball legends are seamlessly woven into the novel.
by Robert B. Parker
Houghton Mifflin, 1975
When Robert B. Parker’s Spenser takes on a case involving the Boston Red Sox, you expect best-in-class, and for me that’s Mortal Stakes, published in 1975. Parker takes a straightforward plot—for reasons unknown, a top Red Sox pitcher may be throwing games—and turns it into a thrilling kill-or-be-killed tale, as well as a look at the dark side of baseball, where gamblers are always on the lookout for weaknesses to be exploited. Spenser is also compelled to take an honest look at the macho moral code that guides professional ballplayers and Spenser himself. (Another strength of Mortal Stakes is the absence, for most of the book, of the annoying Susan Silverman.)
And now, as the Monty Pythons used to say, for something completely different. That would be Screwball, a 2003 novel by David Ferrell. It’s an over-the-top black comedy that answers the question: What if the Red Sox lineup that could end the 80-year "curse of the Bambino" includes a serial killer? It’s no easy trick to sustain a madcap, Carl Hiaasen vibe through multiple murders. Ferrell brings it off by focusing on the Sox’s long-suffering manager, Augie "Big Fish" Sharkey, who’s forced to become a detective to save his team, career, and sanity. Why isn’t the book better known? The malicious baseball gods must have been at work, because it came out just before the Red Sox dramatically ended their championship drought in 2004.
Plus more reads to get you through the season...
1. Highly respected baseball writer and historian Donald Honig is a prolific nonfiction author on the subject, but has also penned several novels, including a wonderful suspense series set in the 1940s and featuring sportswriter Joe Tinker. Look for The Plot to Kill Jackie Robinson (Dutton, 1992) and Last Man Out (NAL, 1993).
2. The prolific Jerome Charyn returns to baseball-related plots time and time again in his series featuring Isaac Sidel, a Jewish police officer turned mayor. The tough, smart series is set largely in the Bronx, New York, home of the Yankees and hometown of Charyn. All ten Isaac Sidel books were reprinted in 2012 by Mysterious Press.
3. G. S. Rowe's Will Beaman mysteries center on a minor-league backstop and his crime-solving, baseball-playing, lady-loving adventures in late 19th- and early 20th-century Boston. The four-book series, beginning with Best Bet in Beantown (Pocol Press, 2002), uses plots and characters largely based on historical events.
4. Crabbe Evers, the pseudonym for writing team William Brashler and Reinder Van Til, penned a five-book series in the 1990s about a retired Chicago sportswriter named Duffy House. If you're interested, start with Bleeding Dodger Blue (Crimeline, 1991).
5. Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery (Hall of Fame Press, 2008), by mother-son team Mary-Ann Tirone Smith and Jere Smith, finds Boston homicide detective Rocky Patel on two Red Sox-related cases: an abandoned baby left in the players' chapel at Fenway Park in Boston, and the murder of a Red Sox farm-team player's girlfriend.
6. Only The Wicked is the fourth in Gary Phillips' Ivan Monk series, and when Monk's cousin Kennesaw Riles, a former baseball player, is murdered, has the PI leaving Los Angeles and heading to the Mississippi Delta for an investigation colored by blues music, eccentric characters, and the history of the Negro baseball leagues.
7. The thriller Caught Stealing, by Charlie Huston, has Henry Thompson, a former California ball player turned New York bartender, running for his life (and using his baseball bat in a totally new way) when something in his previous sports life sets a cast of thugs, goons, and mafia hit men on his tail.
TNT network seems to know that the best stories can be found in mysteries. Something we readers have known for a long time.
The series of TV movies from authors such as Lisa Gardener, Richard North Patterson, April Smith, and Mary Higgins Clark that aired during 2011 showed that TNT can successfully capture the spirit of the novels.
The latest TNT project may be a drama based on Sara Gran’s new series about private detective Claire DeWitt.
Claire, a tough, sarcastic detective, made her debut in Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, which took place in post-Katrina New Orleans.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Gran will write the script and be the co-executive producer of the pilot, which is still in the development phase and hasn’t yet been approved.
Gran’s second novel about the private detective, Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, comes out in June and moves the action to San Francisco.
In the series’ second installment, Claire becomes involved with the murder of an old boyfriend and a string of thefts of miniature horses.
Gran's other novels include the very noir Dope.
The 2013 Thriller Awards nominees have just been released and it is a list filled with terrific books.
The 2013 Thriller Award winners will be announced at ThrillerFest VIII, July 13, 2013, at the Grand Hyatt in New York City.
Congratulations to all the finalists.
BEST HARDCOVER NOVEL
Sean Chercover – THE TRINITY GAME (Thomas & Mercer)
Brian Freeman – SPILLED BLOOD (SilverOak)
Lisa Gardner – CATCH ME (Dutton Books)
Gregg Hurwitz – THE SURVIVOR (St. Martin’s Press)
William Landay – DEFENDING JACOB (Delacorte Press)
BEST FIRST NOVEL
Daniel Friedman – DON’T EVER GET OLD (Minotaur Books)
Owen Laukkanen – THE PROFESSIONALS (Putnam Adult)
Chris Pavone – THE EXPATS (Crown)
Matthew Quirk – THE 500 (Reagan Arthur Books)
Michael Sears – BLACK FRIDAYS (Putnam Adult)
BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL NOVEL
Blake Crouch – PINES (Thomas & Mercer)
Sean Doolittle – LAKE COUNTRY (Bantam)
Alison Gaylin – AND SHE WAS (Harper)
Alex Marwood – THE WICKED GIRLS (Penguin Books)
Michael W. Sherer – NIGHT BLIND (Thomas & Mercer)
BEST SHORT STORY
David Edgerley Gates – “The Devil to Pay” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine)
Clark Howard – “The Street Ends at the Cemetery” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
Dennis Lehane – “The Consumers” (Mulholland Books)
Gordon McEachern – “The History Lesson” (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine)
John Rector – “Lost Things” (Thomas & Mercer)
BEST YOUNG ADULT NOVEL
Michelle Gagnon – DON’T TURN AROUND (HarperCollins)
Andrew Klavan – IF WE SURVIVE (Thomas Nelson)
Dan Krokos – FALSE MEMORY (Hyperion Books CH)
Niall Leonard – CRUSHER (Delacorte Books for Young Readers)
William Richter – DARK EYES (Razorbill)
BEST E-BOOK ORIGINAL NOVEL
Jon Land – PANDORA’S TEMPLE (Open Road E-riginal)
CJ Lyons – BLIND FAITH (CJ Lyons)
Alexandra Sokoloff – HUNTRESS MOON (Alexandra Sokoloff)
Allen Wyler – DEAD END DEAL (Astor + Blue Editions)
Allen Wyler – DEAD WRONG (Astor + Blue Editions)
Sesame Street Season 2: Episode 0131 (1970) "Missing Chicken Salad Sandwich"
Most recent appearance...
Sesame Street Season 40: Episode 4206 (2010)
Best known role...
Self-appointed World's Greatest Detective
WHO IS SHERLOCK HEMLOCK?
Sherlock Hemlock is a hapless detective on Sesame Street and a clear (bumbling) parody of Sherlock Holmes. He speaks in a British accent and enters scenes with "detective music." He often carries a magnifying glass and wears a traditional Holmes-like outfit including a deerstalker cap and an Inverness cape (whatever those are). He often shouts "Egad!" whenever he finds a clue.
First appearing in Sesame Street Season 2, Sherlock Hemlock was already solving mysteries in his debut. In the premiere episode of Season 2, Sherlock Hemlock attempted to find the missing half of Ernie's chicken salad sandwich... only to find out that Sherlock Hemlock himself ate the sandwich half. This dynamic between Ernie and Sherlock Hemlock would become a popular pairing in the early seasons of Sesame Street.
In later seasons, along with solving mysteries with Ernie, Sherlock Hemlock appeared in the recurring cavemen sketches as the "Royal Smart Person." In the cavemen days, Sherlock Hemlock helped out Caveman Ernie by inventing the EXIT sign, paper, toothbrush, and juice.
Sherlock Hemlock also appeared in two notable sketches about the letter X during his run on Sesame Street. He appeared on Guy Smiley's game show Mystery Guest alongside Cookie Monster and Don Music, where the Letter X was the mystery guest. (Sherlock Hemlock guessed the Letter I was the mystery guest.) He also performed one of his only musical numbers on the show, X Marks the Spot! which acted as a warning/informative song about what the letter X may represent.
Starting in Season 21, Sherlock Hemlock starred in every Mysterious Theater segment, a parody of the PBS serial Mystery! Hosted and introduced by Vincent Twice (a parody of Vincent Price), Sherlock Hemlock would solve various mysteries presented in a TV-like format. In these segments, Sherlock Hemlock was given a sidekick in the form of his faithful (and often smarter) dog Watson. The most recent major appearance by Sherlock Hemlock occurred in Season 27, where he once again worked with the Letter X as the notorious letter wanted to quit the alphabet. Sherlock Hemlock did, however, appear in Season 40 in one of the "Hidden Gems" with a small speaking role demanding service at Hooper's Store.
WHY DOES SESAME STREET NEED SHERLOCK HEMLOCK?
While Sherlock Hemlock has not appeared in a major capacity on Sesame Street in some time, I think that it is high time he returned. Not only is he quite hilarious in his bumbling mystery "solving," but in today's modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes film series and PBS's Sherlock), the topic is once again ripe for parody.
The Sesame Street writers are fond of having Elmo and Abby Cadabby and other characters solve mysteries in the street stories, so why not have Sherlock Hemlock join in the fun? And with his performance as Uncle Deadly in The Muppets, Matt Vogel has proven that he can mimic Jerry Nelson's British accent with aplomb. Bring back Sherlock Hemlock!
(Pictured right: Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who portrays Sherlock Holmes on PBS's Sherlock, sporting a Sherlock Hemlock tee.)
This profile of the World's Greatest Detective was reprinted with full permission from The Muppet Mindset, where it first appeared as a "Weekly Muppet Wednesday" on June 27, 2012. Writer Ryan Dosier is the owner/operator/founder of The Muppet Mindset, the go-to blog for everything Muppet related from The Muppets Studio, Sesame Street, The Jim Henson Company, and more. The Muppet Mindset is dedicated to spreading the good news the Muppets are bringing and providing Muppet fans with an outlet to express their fandom.
Justified’s fourth season ended last night with a bang of a finale, full of unexpected plot twists and character relevations.
For those of you who have not yet seen the finale of this series on FX, I offer this promise:
DO NOT WORRY IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FINALE.
I GIVE NOTHING AWAY.
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THIS BLOG WITHOUT FEAR OF SPOILERS. (And if you missed this finale it will be On Demand soon and there will be reruns.)
OK, now that we got that out of the way.
No matter what the plot involves—moonshiners, the Detroit mob, the destructive nature of Big Coal—each season has really been about the thin line that is ever shifting between good and evil. It’s no coincidence it also is a recurring theme in Elmore Leonard’s novels. Justified is based on Leonard’s 2001 novella Fire in the Hole.
Justified entertains with its own 50 shades of gray areas as good people do bad things and criminals show they can be heroes, of a sort.
The fourth season of Justified revolved around the search for Drew Thompson, who was involved in an international cocaine deal more than 30 years ago and who faked his own death.
But the heart of Justified continues to be the story of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by Timothy Olyphant, left) and the criminal Boyd Crowder (also played to perfection by Walton Goggins).
The two men grew up together and know how each other thinks.
As each is fond of saying, “We shoveled coal together,” a phrase that may not mean anything outside of Kentucky's hills but implies a code of mutual obligation for those who live in Harlan County.
Each man could easily have turned the other way and each knows that.
We root for Raylan, of course, but we also want to see Boyd succeed.
Ironically, Raylan has his problems with relationships, but Boyd and Ava Crowder, his girlfriend and partner in crime, have an extremely strong bond.
It is obvious that Boyd and Ava (the wonderful Joelle Carter) not only are in love but respect each other and treat each other as equals. And if you don’t know why Ava has the same last name as Boyd, then go back to season one.
Season 4 also gave us more of a glimpse into the backgrounds and personal lives of Raylan’s co-workers, Deputy U.S. Marshal Rachel Brooks (Erica Tazel) and Deputy U.S. Marshal Tim Gutterson (Jacob Pitts).
And that also played into the season's other theme--the search for identity, whether it was Drew, Raylan, the other deputies or the prostitute Ellen May.
One of the highlights of this fourth season was watching Constable Bob Sweeney (played by comedian Patton Oswalt) step up and show his mettle. Bob has often been treated as a buffoon by the other officers and by Harlan County residents. And, Bob has often acted like a clown.
But don’t underestimate this cop.
Justified has been renewed for Season 5—the network executives would be foolish not to—but we will have to wait until early 2014 to see what else awaits Raylan, Boyd, Ava and the rest of the crew.
Sounds like a good time to rewatch all the seasons.
PHOTOS: From top: Timothy Olyphant; Joelle Carter and Walton Goggins; Jacob Pitts and Erica Tazel; Olyphant and Patton Oswalt. FX photos
Age really is just a number.
I know 60- and 80-year-olds who think and act as if they are still in their 20s; conversely, I know 20- and 30-year-olds who might as well be in their 90s since they are squandering their youth.
Gray hair and wrinkles have little to do with a person’s real age, even though we live in a youth-obsessed world. How else to explain why NBC is thinking of dumping Jay Leno whose ratings have never been higher for a younger host? (And for the record, I like Jimmy Fallon a lot.)
While mysteries also tend to focus on characters who are younger characters, more novels are showing the vitality and abilities of older detectives.
Take the absorbing Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman about a former FBI Special Agent who also is 59 years old. Brigid Quinn’s years in the FBI were spent dealing with violence and her obsession with her career and capturing murderers left her little time for a personal life. While her retirement came after she shot an unarmed criminal, her real career low was not capturing a serial killer whose case was dubbed “the Route 66 murders.”
While retirement has not been an easy fit for Brigid, she has found happiness in her new marriage to a former college professor. But Brigid is drawn back to the violence when a man confesses to the killings.
No matter what age Masterman used for her heroine, Rage Against the Dying would be an intriguing thriller, filled with realistic characters who elevate the solid plot. But Brigid’s age brings a new depth to the story as Masterman shows that the skills that Brigid had as a young agent have only increased and matured, making her even more valuable.
Masterman, of course, isn’t the only author to show that detectives over the age of 50 have the vitality of their younger counterparts.
James Swain wrote several intriguing novels about Tony Valentine, a retired Atlantic City cop turned casino consultant. A widower who lived in a retirement community, Tony was 63 years old when the series began. Tony found his consulting business was a way to gain respect, which he took for granted when he was a young cop. The worst part about getting old, Tony says, is that “People don’t think you count anymore.”
Michael Connelly and Sara Paretsky have both aged their detectives in their long-running series.
Connelly’s Harry Bosch was 11 years old in 1961 when his mother was murdered and he was 18 years old when he joined the Army and served in Vietnam. The LAPD detective is now in his 60s and retirement is looming for Bosch, who figures he has about three more years on the job, a situation explored in The Drop, published in 2011. Retirement may be creeping up but there is no doubt that Connelly keeps Bosch vital, sharp and at the top of his game.
Likewise Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski—was born around 1950, according to the timeline of the novels. Yet the private detective still prowls the streets of Chicago, seeking justice. V.I. keeps up with current events and the novels reflect the changing times.
Still, we worry how long Charlotte “Lotty” Herschel will be around, since she is a Holocaust survivor.
While neither a cell phone or the Internet existed when Paretsky or Connelly began their series, V.I. and Harry both embrace technology and use it to their advantage.
Of course, Agatha Christie knew decades ago that age didn’t diminish a detective’s observation skills. Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot were foiling criminals far into their golden years.
Do you have a favorite fictional detective who is over the age of 50?
“Books are so decorative, don’t you think?” a silly young woman with a presumptuous air tells Mame Dennis, played by Rosalind Russell, in the 1958 movie Auntie Mame.
I watch that film every New Year’s Day and I often think of that line when I see incredible home libraries or books integrated into a décor.
During a recent shopping trip with a friend, I spied this assortment in a home furnishing store.
While the designer no doubt just wanted an artful design, I thought the arrangement shows a lot of good reading sense on behalf of the decorator. I would buy the set up just for the reading material.
Allan Pinkerton and the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln
Allan Pinkerton and President Abraham Lincoln, shortly after the Battle of Antietam on October 3, 1862. Before he became head of the Union Intelligence Services, Pinkerton foiled an assassination attempt against the President-elect. Photo: Library of Congress.
The PTA meeting is over and I’m standing at the punch bowl, minding my own business. A guy in a Nationals baseball cap comes up, looking angry. He leans in close and jabs a finger in my chest. “You’re the guy who’s writing the book about Allan Pinkerton,” he says. “Let me tell you something about Allan Pinkerton. Allan Pinkerton bashed my grandfather over the head with a club at Homestead—cracked his skull right open. Is that in your book, Mr. Author?”
This happens more often than you might think. I’ve just written a nonfiction book called The Hour of Peril, about Pinkerton, the founder of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency, and one of the most controversial episodes of his storied career. It’s set in 1861, just after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and just before the Civil War broke out. It was an especially turbulent moment in American history, and over a period of 13 days, as Lincoln traveled by train from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration, the air was filled with rumors of an assassination plot. In Maryland, where Lincoln’s train would cross below the Mason-Dixon line for the first time, there were whispers that he would be shot—or stabbed, or that his train would be blown up—at a whistle-stop appearance in Baltimore. Pinkerton, America’s top lawman, caught wind of the plot and began racing the clock to uncover hard evidence, in the hope of persuading Lincoln to take action before time ran out.
The broad strokes of the Baltimore Plot, as this episode came to be known, are well known, but very few people know the story behind the story, and that story begins with Pinkerton. He was a tough nut—scrappy, grizzled, quick to anger. He was born in Scotland, he got into trouble with the law, and he came to America as a barrel-maker. One day he was out cutting wood for his barrels and stumbled across a group of counterfeiters dividing their ill-gotten spoils around a campfire. The following day he led the local sheriff on a raid and rounded them up. The next thing you know, Pinkerton is a lawman, and soon after that he became something entirely new—a private detective. His logo was a stern, unblinking eye, glaring out above the words “We Never Sleep.” Soon that logo brought a new phrase to the American lexicon—private eye.
We think of Pinkerton detectives as hard men with big fists and blazing guns. Remember that relentless posse of lawmen chasing Butch and Sundance? They were Pinkertons. The guys shooting back at the train robbers from inside the freight car? They were Pinkertons. The guys knocking heads together during the strike at the steel mill? Those were Pinkertons, too, sad to say.
This last thing—the union busting—is what led to my showdown at the punch bowl. I knew exactly what had the guy so worked up. He was talking about the Homestead Strike of 1892, a truly horrific clash between striking steel workers and Pinkerton men in Pennsylvania. This was a terrible, bloody episode, with plenty of blame on both sides, but I can tell you, for sure, that Allan Pinkerton didn’t crack anybody’s grandfather over the head that day. Why? Because he was dead. He died eight years earlier.
This information seemed to appease my finger-jabbing friend, but just barely. He clearly felt that I’d gotten off on a technicality. Maybe I had. My point is that Pinkerton’s story has gotten tangled up over the years with the darker aspects of his agency’s legacy. One of the pleasures of working on this book was finding out more about Allan Pinkerton’s life story, which is more interesting—and far more nuanced—than is generally known. Pinkerton spent his youth marching for the rights of working men in his native Scotland, and came under fire, literally, for doing so. He ran a station on the Underground Railroad, helping fugitive slaves make their way north to freedom. He was a close friend of John Brown, the notorious fire-and-brimstone abolitionist, even though the assistance he gave to Brown in the days leading up to Harpers Ferry put him on the wrong side of the law. Pinkerton even had female detectives working for him, decades before anyone dreamed of putting them on America’s police forces. “I have no hesitation in saying,” he wrote in later years, “that the profession of a detective, for a lady possessing the requisite characteristics, is as useful and honorable employment as can be found in any walk of life.”
Pinkerton was no saint, and I’m not looking to apologize for some of the terrible things that happened on his watch, but there’s a bigger story to be told, and it’s the story of a barefoot cooper who becomes a world-famous detective and makes his bones protecting America’s railroads. One of his biggest clients, I should add, was the Illinois Central Railroad, and the Illinois Central also had a lawyer on retainer whose name was Abraham Lincoln.
And thereby hangs a tale. In fact, it’s the story that Pinkerton himself regarded as the high point of his 30 years in the detective business, and the act for which he wished to be remembered. There’s an inscription on his tombstone that reads: “In the hour of the nation’s peril, he conducted Abraham Lincoln safely through the ranks of treason to the scene of his first inauguration as President.” Sounds like there’s a pretty good book title in there somewhere.
Come find me at the punch bowl, and I’ll tell you all about it.
The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War, Daniel Stashower, Minotaur Books, January 2013, $26.99
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #128.
Wrangling with aging, corraling crime, and riding off into the sunset...
Nancy G. West. Below right: the author on horseback as a young girl
I was in the middle of writing a serious suspense novel, Nine Days to Evil, when Aggie Mundeen, sitting near my protagonist in a college classroom, demanded my attention. Aggie said she wouldn’t let me finish the novel I was working on until I promised to write a series about her. Once Aggie planted herself in my brain, it was hard for me to finish that academic novel. I managed, but Aggie turned out to be correct: Her first mystery caper, Fit to Be Dead, was short-listed for Left Coast Crime’s 2013 Lefty Award for Best Humorous Mystery.
Why did Aggie capture my imagination? As the only “mature” college student in a class of twentysomethings, Aggie was terrified of only one thing: middle-age decrepitude. She anonymously wrote the column “Adventures in Staying Young.” Single, 40-ish, and having moved to Texas to start over, she figured that before anyone discovered she claimed to be an “expert” on perpetual youth, she’d better shape up. Thus, she’d enrolled in Aspects of Aging class and was struggling to get in shape at the local health club. After alienating club members and misusing workout equipment, Aggie stumbled into murder.
For the series to continue, Aggie had to bump into murder someplace else. I set her second mystery caper, Dang Near Dead, at a Texas dude ranch.
Why a dude ranch setting for Aggie’s second fiasco? Because, like many pubescent girls, I had loved horses. I’d even attended a working ranch camp in my youth. Where else could Aggie encounter wranglers with suspicious backgrounds, hapless dudes, heat, snakes, and poison ivy? I could hardly wait for Aggie to filter those characters and critters through her inimitable viewpoint. While Aggie got a crash course in oil drilling, water shortages, and secrets buried under 1,800 acres, she would advise her column readers on how to remain young and fresh while frolicking outdoors in summer. Once Aggie discovered that "home on the range" meant murder, I knew her innovative sleuthing methods would strain her dicey relationship with the San Antonio detective who was vacationing incognito at the ranch. When curiosity drove Aggie to probe a hornet’s nest of cowboys, I felt confident that more than one hombre in the bunch would love to slit her throat.
Ahhh. Ranch life held a bounty of opportunity for Aggie Mundeen. And poignant memories for me.
3 RANCHER TIPS FROM NANCY WEST
1. If you’re told to catch your horse inside a corral, avoid standing behind the rump. Your presence activates his hind legs!
2. Mount your horse from the correct side, or your horse will not like you. The horse thinks the “right” side is his left side.
3. If you camp overnight and feel frisky enough in the morning to initiate a meadow-muffin war, make sure the cow-patty Frisbees are thoroughly dry.
Sheila Simonson’s Beyond Confusion gives us the return of gutsy librarian Meg McLean and the Klalo Indian Reservation, which has provided so many intriguing characters in her earlier books (Buffalo Bill’s Defunct, etc.). This time out, Chief Madeline Redfern wants to open a branch library on the property owned by the Klalo, but for some reason, Marybeth Jackman, one of Meg’s employees, is doing what she can to stop it. When Marybeth is found murdered, the list of suspects is long; not only did she have trouble with the local Indian population, she frequently clashed with the library’s other patrons, as well. She also wasn’t above spying and bullying. As usual, Simonson’s plot moves briskly along, highlighted by the bountiful Northwest scenery. But character-naming problems in this book create such confusion that it’s hard to keep things straight. We get not only a Meg and a Madeline and a Marybeth and a Beth and a Beatie and a Bitsie, but a Jake, a Jeff, a Jack, and a Jason. That old writer’s trick of making an alphabetical list of characters’ names would have helped avoid this problem, leaving the reader free to enjoy Meg’s intrepid investigation.
Lucy Campion may be a mere chambermaid in a grand house in London, but when she turns detective, she’s one smart sleuth. Calkins brings London in 1665 to life in this upstairs-downstairs tale of mayhem and murder. Of the latter, there is plenty. First, a half-naked woman is discovered stabbed to death in a field in bleak and secluded Rosamund’s Gate near the mansion—a slaying that piques Lucy’s interest. Lucy’s involvement grows even stronger when Bessie, a fellow servant girl from Magistrate Hargrave’s household, is slain in the same locale and Lucy’s brother, William, is implicated in the murder. Before a climactic trial, young Lucy begins tracking clues that will lead her to where servant and master find themselves both at the mercy of a madman in a rousing wind-up to a clever plot.
Also in the mix of this debut historical mystery is the outbreak of the plague. One-by-one, Lucy’s fellow servants begin to show signs of the dreaded pestilence sweeping the city. Lucy’s employer, Hargrave, begins to display similar symptoms to the distress of his family. Many of the staff also fall ill as the epidemic rapidly spreads, sparing no class. Lucy finds she is not immune to this horrific wave of sickness and death either. Nor is she immune to romance, as she finds herself more and more attracted to the unattainable Adam Hargrave, her employer’s son.
Author Susanna Calkins became intrigued with 17th-century England while earning a doctorate in British history. Most probably, the clever Lucy and her fellow cast of servants and masters will be back, since at the conclusion of this mystery a fire has erupted in London and it appears to be raging into a lot of lives.
Do we really know the people closest to us? That question comes up more than once throughout Lisa Scottoline’s latest sure-to-be-a-bestseller, Don’t Go.
A military medic’s worst nightmare is realized when his wife dies while he is overseas, leaving behind their infant daughter. Grief-stricken, Dr. Mike Scanlon returns to the States, only to find that his daughter Emily, who is in the care of his sister-in-law and her husband, is terrified of the unfamiliar man calling himself “Daddy.”
While Mike is desperately trying to understand why his wife Chloe was found in their house, bleeding to death, he learns some terrible truths about her, forcing him to rethink everything he thought was certain in his life. In the meantime, his infant daughter continues to reject him, becoming closer and closer to her aunt and uncle.
Soon, it seems as if everything else in Mike’s life is unraveling, including his surgical career. It is his love for his daughter that forces Mike to forge ahead to redeem and reinvent himself in order to begin anew after tragedy.
The author paints a vivid, though disturbing, portrait of what it’s really like to be in a war zone and of the life-altering consequences. The great strength of the book, though, is in the characters created by Scottoline. They are flawed, but relatable and sympathetic.