Michael Koryta on Keith Robertson's the Crow and the Castle
Michael Koryta

koryta_michaelBefore Lehane, before Chandler, there was Keith Robertson and The Crow and the Castle

I've written many times and at some length about the most influential crime novel of my reading life, which was Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane, but most of the Mystery Scene readers are surely familiar with Dennis and his work, so it seems prudent, or at least a little more interesting, to follow Carolyn Hart's lead and take it back a step.

The first mystery I ever read was a young-adult novel called The Crow and the Castle by Keith Robertson. Robertson was best known for his humorous Henry Reed stories, but The Crow and the Castle was a mystery featuring the "Carson Street Detective Agency," a crow named Hector, a missing chess piece with a jewel inside, and a cranky retired Navy captain. Robertson wrote many young-adult mysteries that were wonderful reads, anchored in characters who often had a love affair with the land around them, the history of that land, and with the weather. If you doubt the influence of a childhood read, check out So Cold the River and consider those three elements.

robertson_crowandthecastleI wrote a letter to Keith Robertson and mailed it to his New Jersey farm when I was eight years old. It arrived the month of his death, September 1991, and he never read it. His son, Jeff, did. He wrote a response. I wrote back. He held up the chain. We corresponded for years, and I read every book his father wrote, and I mimicked them shamelessly in my own writing attempts, and from The Crow and the Castle I found Raymond Chandler and from Chandler I found Lehane and...you see.

Another note—the book was long out of print by the time I read it. It was a childhood favorite of my father, and he remembered it, and the library had it. The tale outlasts the teller, always, and that's one of the great joys of this craft. 

Michael Koryta's latest standalone is So Cold the River (Little, Brown and Company, June 2010).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews June 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 18:55:32

Before Lehane, before Chandler, there was Keith Robertson and The Crow and the Castle

Susan Wittig Albert on Eudora Welty's "the Ponder Heart"
Susan Wittig Albert

SusanWittigAlbert2Pondering the wit and insight of Eudora Welty

When I'm writing a period book, I tend to read books that were written in the period. Currently, I'm writing the second book in a new series set in the South during the Depression: The Darling Dahlias. So I'm re-reading the stories and novels of Eudora Welty, whose work I first encountered when I was a young girl, dreaming the impossible dream of becoming a writer. I've read all of Welty's work, but my favorite has to be The Ponder Heart.

welty_theponderheartThe story is a monologue, the long-winded complaint of Edna Earle Ponder, who owns a hotel in a small Mississippi town and tells her story to a traveling salesman. The tale is about Edna Earle's dotty Uncle Dan, a rich man who gives his stuff away with the joyful impetuosity of a child giving away his toys—and ends up being charged with murder. We piece together a crazy-quilt plot, with its multiple layers of irony and foolishness, as the bossy and self-important Edna Earle tells her tale, rambling on and on in a wildly funny scramble of subtle hints, sly innuendo, opinion, digressions, and details that have nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the world of people, place, and meaning that Welty is creating for us. Edna Earle's voice is pitch-perfect and her language is ordinary Southern talk, tuned to a fine edge and jam-crammed with Southern details. Rings in my ear, holds me to the page. What a gift!

wittigalbert_darlingdahliaandthetexasstar

Susan Wittig Albert's latest Darling Dahlias mystery is The Darling Dahlias and the Texas Star (Berkley Hardcover, September 2013).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews July 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 19:24:17

SusanWittigAlbert2Pondering the wit and insight of Eudora Welty

Frederick Forsyth on John Le Carré's the Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Frederick Forsyth

lecarre_spywhocameinfromthecoldThe espionage novel that broke the mold.

A novel is likely to stick in the mind if it is, for you personally, innovative. Did it open a door to a whole new world of awareness? Did it break the mold of all previous works in that genre and set a new standard? Within the world of espionage—for a century a great American tradition—the novel that broke the mold was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Personally I dislike multi-word titles, but never mind. Before that all purported novels about espionage fell into two categories. First off, they were all beautifully spoken and similarly mannered gentlemen. They were mainly amateurs like Buchan's Richard Hannay or drawling effetes like Maugham's Ashenden.

If not that, they were pure hokum like James Bond. "Good morning, Mr. Bond, we have been expecting you." So much for the secret agent. Secret? Bond might as well have had a brass band to announce his coming.

Then in 1963 John le Carré blew all that away. With total authority (he had been one) he said, this is what it is like. It is devious and treacherous. It is about shadows, smoke and mirrors. It involves lying, dissimulation, and betrayal. There will be traitors on your own side and cunning bastards facing you across the Iron Curtain. Nothing is likely to be what it seems. There will be mind-numbing fear, torture if you are caught, no public credit for those who win, and oblivion for those who fail.

burton_thespywhocameinfromthecoldRichard Burton as Alec Leamas in the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1956).

And he was right. Readers worldwide were convinced that was what espionage was really like. The subtle, devious, invisible George Smiley became the template for the spymaster and in the film Richard Burton the model of the used and abused loser. Spy novels have never dared to return to Boy Scout romps since then. 

Frederick Forsyth's latest thriller is The Cobra (Putnam Adult, August 2010).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews August 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 19:49:56

The espionage novel that broke the mold.

Deon Meyer on Ed Mcbain
Deon Meyer

meyer_deonEd McBain, King of Crime

Don's Book Exchange was a dusty secondhand bookshop about half an hour's bicycle ride from our home in Klerksdorp—an oasis of affordable reading for a 14-year-old South African kid from the wrong side of the tracks. It was where I bought my first Ed McBain novel. For 50 cents.

It was, in retrospect, a rite of passage.

Regrettably, I can't recall which of McBain's 87th Precinct titles was the first one I read. However, I do remember the fever and intense pleasure of discovering a new kind of book—grown-up, thrilling, wry, suspenseful, gritty, witty, human—and a whole new genre, the police procedural, that somehow captured my imagination like none before or since. It was like coming home.

mcbain_killerswedgeAnd for the next four decades, I would buy and devour every book the late, great man wrote, including a signed hardback copy of Alice in Jeopardy for $22.50 from Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego during a US book tour, my most prized possession. (The very thought that I was sharing a space Mr. McBain had also visited, thrills me to this day. And my only real claim to fame is that he and I shared adjacent pages in our mutual Dutch publisher's catalogue some years ago.)

His books have inspired, taught, and greatly influenced me as an author. From the vivid city settings, to the fallible, affable cop characters, the great dialogue, the perfect plotting, the word economy, and his incredible work ethic, he will always remain, in my estimation, the King of Crime. 

Deon Meyer's latest thriller is Thirteen Hours (Grove Atlantic, September 2010).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews September 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 20:42:35

Ed McBain, King of Crime

Joseph Wambaugh on Joseph Heller's Catch-22
Joseph Wambaugh

wambaugh_josephTrading a life of crime fighting for absurdist comedy.

While still a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department I reached a crisis point. My celebrity had overtaken me insofar as being the "Writing Cop" was concerned, and I had to resign just to save my colleagues from the media attention. I considered my first two novels, The New Centurions and The Blue Knight to be merely "moonlighting" books, that is, something I did as a hobby apart from my "real" work as a cop. The third, The Onion Field, was nonfiction where I had become an investigative reporter. But now I was a "civilian" after 14 years and I had a need to write another novel, but one with a distinctive voice that would sustain me if I were able to remain in the writing game. I think my main inspiration was Catch-22, a brilliant novel that I had first read in college as a young cop.

heller_catch22What Joseph Heller did in his masterpiece was to dramatize the insanity of war and the stresses that drove people to madness by writing his very serious story using all of the tools of absurdist comedy: irony, satire, hyperbole, and incredible gallows humor. The juxtaposition of a belly laugh followed by a horrific scene produced nearly unbearable dramatic tension throughout that book.

I thought that there are many things in common between war and police work, and dark defensive humor is also the weapon of the street cop as protection against fear and horror and premature demoralizing cynicism that can produce an overwhelming emotional threat. I had personally known more cops who killed themselves than were killed by villains. And I thought, from now on I'll write stories that are the opposite of police procedurals which tell how the cop acts on the job. I'll flip it and dramatize how the job acts on the cop, and gallows humor will be my most potent weapon. The first one was The Choirboys, and that's the voice that I have tried to keep ever since, with a tip of my hat to Joseph Heller. 

Joseph Wambaugh's latest Hollywood Station book is Hollywood Hills (Little, Brown & Co., Nov. 2010).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews November 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 21:19:30

Trading a life of crime fighting for absurdist comedy.

Alex Kava on Books as Travel Companions

Alex Kava

kava_alexFlights of fiction fancy

I've always thought it sad to hear authors confess they have no time to read for pleasure, only for research. Sad because for most of us our love of reading is what inspired us to be writers. It's a bit like a chef saying he or she no longer has time to eat or a pianist not able to listen to music. I should probably confess, I used to be one of those authors. I'd feel guilty reading when I should be writing. Then I'd go on book tour.


I hate flying so having 15 to 20 flights in the span of two to three weeks is a challenge in itself. Reading helps take my mind off being 30,000 feet above control. I started asking bookstore owners and managers for recommendations, picking up a book for my next psychotherapy in the sky. Who better to ask. Over the last ten years I've accumulated a list of treasures I might not have stumbled upon on my own.


shuman_18seconds One of the first recommendations was Thomas Perry's Jane Whitefield. I devoured the entire series, not in order but picking up one then another from city to city and bookstore to bookstore. Here's a sampling of recommendations that kept me sane: Jan Burke's Bones, Keith Ablow's Psychopath, P.J. Tracy's Monkeewrench, Julia Spencer Fleming's Clare Fergusson mysteries, Jay MacLarty's The Courier, Lisa Black's Takeover, C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels, George Shuman's 18 Seconds, and Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon thrillers.


Although I still hate to fly, I look forward to my next indulgence of bookstore recommendations and my annual reboot of inspiration.
 

Alex Kava's latest is Damaged (Knopf, 2010).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews December 2010 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-21 21:37:11

Flights of fiction fancy

Spencer Quinn on His Reading Life
Spencer Quinn

abrahams_peter_Spencer_Quinn_Author_Photo_2013Popcorn, ginger ale, and Hardy Boys books


I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. (No obvious jokes, please!) And look at that: I’ve already alienated you, breaking Writing Rule 273A(ii), namely that while it’s not absolutely necessary to suck up to readers, try not to insult them.

The Four Bad Hens and Other Stories was the first book I read by myself, and of it I recall nothing, but soon after came Red Pete the Ruthless, and the climax—Red Pete the pirate buried up to his neck between the low and high tide lines, his stolen treasure arrayed around him on the beach—is vivid in my mind. I’ve loved pirate stories—and by extension, sea stories, ever since—and am easy prey for any sort of piratical crime fiction, the Travis McGee novels of John D. MacDonald, for example.

We had a summer cottage when I was a kid, and when my grandmother came to visit she always brought me popcorn, ginger ale, and Hardy Boys books. I’d sit on the screened porch with those three pleasure inputs mixing inside me. Portrait of the young addict? Certainly. Although, I broke the ginger ale–popcorn habit long ago and without effort.

I did more reading for pleasure in college than at any other time in my life. The presence of any of those books on the syllabus would have been coincidental. I discovered British writers who influenced my work, like Graham Greene; read what remains my favorite novel, Crime and Punishment; and found in the novels of Ross Macdonald a guide to what I might attempt in the future. In short, I developed some taste. So much so that I’m now writing crime novels narrated by a dog! (But Chet’s not a talking dog—I make that point ad nauseum.)

quinn_thesoundandthefurryI’m not one of those readers compelled to finish any book I start. Far from it. I’ve abandoned many books in the first ten pages, some even in the first ten words. I look for a lot of things, like prose at once strong and unshowy; the feeling you’re actually there; fun; beauty. But the truth is that if the story has a certain je ne sais quoi—call it a high immersibility quotient—then I’m hooked. That’s what makes a disappointing ending so disappointing: The author has failed a willing fish. We could also go in another metaphoric direction—seduction/arousal/last-second-failure-to-perform—but let’s not. As Evelyn Waugh says in a story of his I’m reading now (second-rate for him, first for anybody else): “No good comes of this dependence on verbal forms.” Now you’re saying: “Doesn’t that quote undermine everything you just wrote?” Yes! That’s part of the deep appeal of reading. It gets into your mind and keeps changing it.

Spencer Quinn is the author of five previous Chet and Bernie mystery novels: Dog on It, Thereby Hangs a Tail, To Fetch a Thief, The Dog Who Knew Too Much, and A Fistful of Collars. He lives on Cape Cod with his dogs Audrey and Pearl. When not keeping them out of mischief, he is hard at work on the next Chet and Bernie mystery. Keep up with him—and with Chet and Bernie—by visiting ChetTheDog.com.

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" enews September 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-22 20:53:13

quinn_spencer_loPopcorn, ginger ale, and Hardy Boys books

Wallace Stroby on Dashiell Hammett's the Glass Key
Wallace Stroby

wallace_casinoPassions, Power, Humanity, and Hammett

The Glass Key was Dashiell Hammett's fourth—and, as it turned out, next-to-last—novel. First published in 1931, it came on the heels of The Maltese Falcon, one of the greatest crime novels of all time. 
 


But if you ask me, The Glass Key deserves that honor even more. For me, it's the uber-Hammett, where his life experience, world view, and narrative skills came fully together. Reading it as a teenager changed the way I looked at crime fiction forever. 
 


The protagonist of The Glass Key is Ned Beaumont, but calling him a "hero" is a bit of a stretch. He's a fixer for political boss and longtime friend Paul Madvig, but mostly he's an inveterate gambler, drinker, and womanizer. As Madvig's right-hand man, he speaks truth to power when his boss ventures a foolish move out of pride or anger. But Ned's also a diplomat, trying to keep peace between the unnamed city's rival gangs on the eve of an important election. All this is threatened when Madvig falls in love with a much younger woman, and finds himself accused of her brother's murder. Suddenly his whole political empire is at risk, as well as the sweet life Ned has orchestrated for himself. 
 


hammett_theglasskeyThere's ostensibly a mystery here—who killed young gadabout Taylor Henry?—but it's almost irrelevant. What matters is Ned's slowly deteriorating friendship with Madvig, and his attraction to the woman that's come between them, climaxing in a final betrayal that's so low-key it's almost unspoken. 
 


The Maltese Falcon is a great American novel, no question. But when I read The Glass Key, nearly 50 years after it was first published, I knew I'd stumbled onto something else entirely, something that respected the form of the detective novel, but was deeply rooted in recognizable human behavior and situations. This wasn't about colorful criminals chasing each other around the globe in pursuit of a mythical treasure. This was about men and women, friendship and loyalty, power and corruption. It felt real. It felt like life. 

 

Wallace Stroby's latest is Cold Shot to the Heart (Minotaur Books, January 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews January 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-22 21:14:44

Passions, Power, Humanity, and Hammett

Barbara D'amato on Joseph Wambaugh's the Choirboys
Barbara D'Amato

damato_barbaraCheering up by behaving badly with the LAPD

I'm not given to depression, for which I am grateful. I'm good at worrying, but I don't do depression. However, several years ago we had moved out of a house where we had lived a long time and into an apartment. Maybe it was the effort, or the change of surroundings, but I became sad. I felt as if I spent every day living under a big damp dishrag.

Then, by sheer accident, I picked up a copy of The Choirboys, a book I had read before, which had survived the move. By page 40 or so, I felt the depression lift.

The story is loosely hung on a killing in MacArthur Park by one of the officers and the subsequent hearing. Ten officers, stressed out from urban policing, meet in the park for what they call "choir practice"—heavy drinking, occasional group sex with neighborhood barmaids, soothing their feelings of loneliness and disillusionment, and telling war stories: a child slashed into pieces, a dead body covered with rat bites.

wambaugh_thechoirboysThe Choirboys raised a storm of outrage when it was first published 1975. Kirkus called it "...a brutal, brutalizing book...an obscenity in a toilet stall..."

I guess they didn't like it.

The Choirboys is politically mega-incorrect, truly poignant, and flat-out hilarious, black comedy at its blackest but funniest. There were whole pages where I could not stop laughing.

The Choirboys is in-your-face stuff. If you read it, you are going to react to it. It takes you by the hair and says, "Pay attention!" Maybe I just got over feeling drab and gloomy on my own, just coincidence, but I believe The Choirboys blasted me back to life. 

Barbara D'Amato's latest is Other Eyes (Forge Books, January 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews February 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-22 21:29:38

Cheering up by behaving badly with the LAPD

Simon Tolkien on John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Simon Tolkien

tolkien_simonWhy George Smiley outclasses James Bond

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is my favourite espionage novel. Its clever, elegant plot flashes between past and present, showing events from multiple points of view without ever creating confusion. The reader is carried forward on a tide of mounting suspense, uncertain of the identity of the traitor until the final pages.

The book's hero, George Smiley, is a great creation. He is almost old and has seen it all before; he is tired but indefatigable; he has no illusions but retains an unbroken sense of honour. As the book opens, a new regime is in control of the British Secret Service and one of its leaders is working for the Soviets. Smiley is brought out of retirement to identify the traitor but he is not the first to attempt the task. The last Secret Service chief, Control, was also convinced there was a traitor inside the Service and sent an agent, Jim Prideaux, into Czechoslovakia to spirit out a communist general who supposedly knew the identity of the mole. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Spy were the names that Control gave to his four deputies and he instructed Prideaux to radio him one of these words, just "one little word," to reveal who the traitor was. But no word ever came. Control had been set up by the mole. The operation was blown, Prideaux was shot in the back, and Control was disgraced. Smiley was the only mourner at his funeral. Now Smiley must follow in the dead man's footsteps and try to succeed where his mentor failed. And on the other side of the espionage chessboard is the Russian spymaster, Karla, whom Smiley met once years before in a hot interrogation cell in Delhi and failed to break.

lecarre_tinkertailorsoldierspyThis is a down-at-heel world of gas fires and lukewarm tea far removed from the glamour of James Bond. But Tinker, Tailor has an infinitely greater depth than Ian Fleming's novels. No one can be trusted and nothing is what it seems. The characters wrestle with conflicted loyalties and speak a euphemistic language that does more than anything else to give the book its unique atmosphere. MI6 is the Circus; surveillance men are lamplighters; bodyguards are babysitters, and the Americans are the cousins. In 1979, five years after its publication, Tinker, Tailor was adapted for television by the BBC with Alec Guinness providing a memorable portrait of George Smiley, and now there are advanced plans for a feature film with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth. This continuing interest is a tribute to the enduring appeal of this wonderful novel. 

Simon Tolkien's latest book is The King of Diamonds (Minotaur Books, March 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews March 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-22 21:46:24

Why George Smiley outclasses James Bond

What Do You Want to Read?
Oline Cogdill
pochoda_visitationstreet2
I am often asked by friends, family and complete strangers “what’s good to read?” Or “what do you recommend?” Or “what would I like?”

The mystery genre offers so many choices that the hard part is narrowing it down to just a couple of books. I always tell people that if they can’t find a mystery they like, they aren’t reading the right books.

Here’s a fun way to pick a mystery. HarperCollins and Investigation Discovery Channel have teamed up to launch a Mystery Match quiz on the channel’s official Facebook page. Here’s how to get to the quiz: http://bit.ly/mysterymatch.

I don’t know how scientific this is, but it is fun. I took the quiz several times, answering differently each time. Was that wrong? I like to think it was more in the name of research.

Depending on the various answers, the books recommended included Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good, Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, Faye Kellerman’s The Beast and Robert Kolker’s true crime book Lost Girls.

The accompanying video that recommended programs on the Investigation Discovery Channel worked well with each book suggested.

Quiz aside, I don’t mind being asked what book to read. Oddly enough, each of the choices that popped up during my quizzes are books I would recommend.

Oline Cogdill
2013-08-28 09:05:35
pochoda_visitationstreet2
I am often asked by friends, family and complete strangers “what’s good to read?” Or “what do you recommend?” Or “what would I like?”

The mystery genre offers so many choices that the hard part is narrowing it down to just a couple of books. I always tell people that if they can’t find a mystery they like, they aren’t reading the right books.

Here’s a fun way to pick a mystery. HarperCollins and Investigation Discovery Channel have teamed up to launch a Mystery Match quiz on the channel’s official Facebook page. Here’s how to get to the quiz: http://bit.ly/mysterymatch.

I don’t know how scientific this is, but it is fun. I took the quiz several times, answering differently each time. Was that wrong? I like to think it was more in the name of research.

Depending on the various answers, the books recommended included Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good, Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, Faye Kellerman’s The Beast and Robert Kolker’s true crime book Lost Girls.

The accompanying video that recommended programs on the Investigation Discovery Channel worked well with each book suggested.

Quiz aside, I don’t mind being asked what book to read. Oddly enough, each of the choices that popped up during my quizzes are books I would recommend.

Elmore Leonard: Always Cool
Oline Cogdill

leonard_elmore
Elmore Leonard
has always been one of our coolest authors.

Leonard, left, didn’t just write about criminals and low-lifes.

He blurred the lines between good and bad, writing about characters who, no matter how violent had a soupcon of decency, as well as people who we were supposed to root for, but who had a streak of amorality.

Leonard did all that with minimalistic dialogue that seemed deceptively simple, until you realized just how much punch a few words could bring.

He did it with as little description about the scenery as possible until you realized just how much he showed about the setting.

And he did this with as spare and lean a story as possible, until you realized that he indeed was following one of his own rules of writing—“leave out the part that people tend to skip.” Leonard never used an “a” or “the” or “that” without a lot of thought.

Leonard, who died last week, Aug. 20, 2013, at age 87, left behind a legacy of more than 45 novels that appealed to readers of many generations.

justified_goggoly
If Leonard was to be known only for the brilliant TV series Justified (FX) based on his 2001 novella Fire in the Hole, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Justified is typical Leonard in which the fine line constantly shifts between the choices we make in life.


Justified
, set in the hills of Kentucky, revolves around U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by Timothy Olyphant, right in photo at right) and the criminal Boyd Crowder (also played to perfection by Walton Goggins, left in same photo).

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 to those outside of these Kentucky hills but is the upmost code for those who live in Harlan County. Each man could easily have turned the other way and each knows that.

leonardelmore_52pickupxx
Justified
succeeds because Graham Yost, the executive producer, head writer and showrunner, is wise enough to respect Leonard’s work as far as the nuances of character and dialogue. The fifth season is scheduled for 2014.

Leonard, who also was credited as an executive producer on the television series, returned to Raylan Givens in his 2012 novel Raylan. In Raylan, the marshal tackles a pair of dope-dealing brothers, a nurse who sells kidneys on the black market and a ruthless coal executive. Several of these subplots have showed up in Justified.

Leonard always made us reconsider who we should be rooting for.

Take Harry Mitchell, the amoral businessman who is being blackmailed over his affair with a stripper in Leonard’s 1974 novel 52 Pick-Up (made into a film in 1986 starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret). Harry is vulnerable to the blackmailers because his wife is running for city council. But Harry is more worried about his own business than his wife and in trying to outwit the blackmailers he puts his wife in danger.

Remember the movie buff loanshark Chili Palmer of Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty? Chili’s criminal enterprises are comparable to the ruthlessness of Hollywood.

leoardelmore_killshot
One of my favorite Leonard novels, Killshot (1989), probably wasn’t his best but I have an affection for it because it takes place mainly in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which is located about 30 minutes from my hometown and a city I knew well. There’s also a few scenes in Cairo, Illinois, located seven miles from my family’s farm and the town in which I was born.

In Killshot, Detroit suburbanites Carmen and Wayne Colson are relocated by the feds to Cape after learning about an extortion plot by two crooks. They like Cape, especially Carmen. But the local marshal who is supposed to help the couple turns out to be as villainous as the two killers who are still on their trail.

For the most part, Leonard’s work translated well to the movie screen. Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch), Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Hombre, and many more.

Aside from Justified, his stories haven’t been as successful on the small screen. Maximum Bob lasted only seven episodes in 1998 as did 2003’s even better Karen Sisco, based on the character from Out of Sight.

I think that is because ABC didn’t go far enough in the spirit of Leonard’s creation with the bombastic judge of Maximum Bob nor with the tough U.S. Marshal played by the terrific Carla Gugino (Jennifer Lopez played the role in the movie).

Cable is a much better fit for Leonard.

leoardelmore_rumpunch
I’m not going into Leonard’s life history. Several good obits did just that and here the links to the Washington Post and the New York Times’ versions.

Since Leonard died, there have been numerous tributes and remembrances of him by authors wanting to honor him.

Some of the links are below, including a lovely appreciation by Michael Connelly; heart-felt tributes by Joseph Wambaugh, Denise Hamilton, Attica Locke, among others.

Meg Abbott has a terrific Q&A with Leonard that kicks off with the excepted---Leonard watching the musical film Top Hat.

And here is a link to his 10 rules of writing, which includes the wonderful word hooptedoodle.

There also have been a lot of postings and blogs by authors who may have brushed by Leonard in a hallway or met him at a signing and are trying to cash in on his death by their “memories.” Take Leonard’s advice and skip those.

Rest in peace, Elmore Leonard, and thank you for all the wonderful stories you’ve given us. You will always been one cool writer.

Oline Cogdill
2013-08-25 00:23:21

leonard_elmore
Elmore Leonard
has always been one of our coolest authors.

Leonard, left, didn’t just write about criminals and low-lifes.

He blurred the lines between good and bad, writing about characters who, no matter how violent had a soupcon of decency, as well as people who we were supposed to root for, but who had a streak of amorality.

Leonard did all that with minimalistic dialogue that seemed deceptively simple, until you realized just how much punch a few words could bring.

He did it with as little description about the scenery as possible until you realized just how much he showed about the setting.

And he did this with as spare and lean a story as possible, until you realized that he indeed was following one of his own rules of writing—“leave out the part that people tend to skip.” Leonard never used an “a” or “the” or “that” without a lot of thought.

Leonard, who died last week, Aug. 20, 2013, at age 87, left behind a legacy of more than 45 novels that appealed to readers of many generations.

justified_goggoly
If Leonard was to be known only for the brilliant TV series Justified (FX) based on his 2001 novella Fire in the Hole, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Justified is typical Leonard in which the fine line constantly shifts between the choices we make in life.


Justified
, set in the hills of Kentucky, revolves around U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (played to perfection by Timothy Olyphant, right in photo at right) and the criminal Boyd Crowder (also played to perfection by Walton Goggins, left in same photo).

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 to those outside of these Kentucky hills but is the upmost code for those who live in Harlan County. Each man could easily have turned the other way and each knows that.

leonardelmore_52pickupxx
Justified
succeeds because Graham Yost, the executive producer, head writer and showrunner, is wise enough to respect Leonard’s work as far as the nuances of character and dialogue. The fifth season is scheduled for 2014.

Leonard, who also was credited as an executive producer on the television series, returned to Raylan Givens in his 2012 novel Raylan. In Raylan, the marshal tackles a pair of dope-dealing brothers, a nurse who sells kidneys on the black market and a ruthless coal executive. Several of these subplots have showed up in Justified.

Leonard always made us reconsider who we should be rooting for.

Take Harry Mitchell, the amoral businessman who is being blackmailed over his affair with a stripper in Leonard’s 1974 novel 52 Pick-Up (made into a film in 1986 starring Roy Scheider and Ann-Margret). Harry is vulnerable to the blackmailers because his wife is running for city council. But Harry is more worried about his own business than his wife and in trying to outwit the blackmailers he puts his wife in danger.

Remember the movie buff loanshark Chili Palmer of Leonard’s 1990 novel Get Shorty? Chili’s criminal enterprises are comparable to the ruthlessness of Hollywood.

leoardelmore_killshot
One of my favorite Leonard novels, Killshot (1989), probably wasn’t his best but I have an affection for it because it takes place mainly in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, which is located about 30 minutes from my hometown and a city I knew well. There’s also a few scenes in Cairo, Illinois, located seven miles from my family’s farm and the town in which I was born.

In Killshot, Detroit suburbanites Carmen and Wayne Colson are relocated by the feds to Cape after learning about an extortion plot by two crooks. They like Cape, especially Carmen. But the local marshal who is supposed to help the couple turns out to be as villainous as the two killers who are still on their trail.

For the most part, Leonard’s work translated well to the movie screen. Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch), Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Hombre, and many more.

Aside from Justified, his stories haven’t been as successful on the small screen. Maximum Bob lasted only seven episodes in 1998 as did 2003’s even better Karen Sisco, based on the character from Out of Sight.

I think that is because ABC didn’t go far enough in the spirit of Leonard’s creation with the bombastic judge of Maximum Bob nor with the tough U.S. Marshal played by the terrific Carla Gugino (Jennifer Lopez played the role in the movie).

Cable is a much better fit for Leonard.

leoardelmore_rumpunch
I’m not going into Leonard’s life history. Several good obits did just that and here the links to the Washington Post and the New York Times’ versions.

Since Leonard died, there have been numerous tributes and remembrances of him by authors wanting to honor him.

Some of the links are below, including a lovely appreciation by Michael Connelly; heart-felt tributes by Joseph Wambaugh, Denise Hamilton, Attica Locke, among others.

Meg Abbott has a terrific Q&A with Leonard that kicks off with the excepted---Leonard watching the musical film Top Hat.

And here is a link to his 10 rules of writing, which includes the wonderful word hooptedoodle.

There also have been a lot of postings and blogs by authors who may have brushed by Leonard in a hallway or met him at a signing and are trying to cash in on his death by their “memories.” Take Leonard’s advice and skip those.

Rest in peace, Elmore Leonard, and thank you for all the wonderful stories you’ve given us. You will always been one cool writer.

Donna Leon on Mark Thompson's the White War
Donna Leon

leon_donnaLife, death, and remembering the lessons of war

Mark Thompson's The White War, Life and Death on the Italian Front: 1915-1919, not only tells the tragic story of the war on the Austrian-Italian border during those dreadful years, but goes a long way to explaining the inability of the average Italian to have faith in his or her government. Because everything in life is so savagely politicized in Italy, history is a subject that is taught with a certain measure of caution, and thus Italians often have bizarre ideas about their own history or, in the case of the two Great Wars, Vast Holes where information should be. This lack, however, seldom prevents them from having strong opinions about the events of those same wars, both of which many insist upon seeing in heroic terms. It is, strangely enough, quite often British historians who manage to tell the story of Italian history straight and tell it true. This is certainly the case with Thompson's book.

Rashly, hoping to be able to grab a bit of territory—and no doubt like their British allies, sure that the boys would be home for Christmas—Italy declared war on Austria in 1915. There ensued, not the easy advance the General Staff anticipated, but a sort of Somme Under Snow that dragged on for the next four years, taking with it the lives of a million men.

thompson_thewhitewarIgnorant armies clashed by night; the Italian generals tossed men into the killing pot as carelessly as a cook tosses penne rigate into boiling water; a complicit press praised every disaster as a triumph; more than a dozen battles were fought to take the Isonzo River; and the young men died of cold, filth, disease, and wounds, while civilians starved to death. Troops not showing the proper enthusiasm for the bloodbath were decimated, and machine guns were placed behind the attacking Italians as an encouragement to bravery. To make no mention of certain death. Italians could not send food packages to their own captured soldiers for fear it would encourage others to surrender.

The eventual Allied victory put an end to the killing, but history has gone on in its usual, amnesiac way. The bestially incompetent General Cadorna is remembered by many Italians as a hero, and much of the patriarchal posturing of Fascism got its start by glorying in the bloodshed of the war. Few Italians are ever taught how many died, or why. But folk wisdom remembers what happens during hopeless wars, and many Italians today believe the rumors that their soldiers in Afghanistan have been supplying weapons to the Taliban while also paying them not to attack.

After living here for almost half of my life, I find it impossible not to sympathize with their sentiments. 

Donna Leon's latest book is Drawing Conclusions (Atlantic, April 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews April 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-26 21:12:51

Life, death, and remembering the lessons of war

Marina Fiorato on Susan Hill's the Man in the Picture
Marina Fiorato

fiorato_marinaA novella with exquisite chills

Susan Hill went to the top of my chart of greatest contemporary mystery writers when I first read her novel The Woman in Black. The image of the shadowy, malign woman stayed with me long after I'd closed the book.

But her novella The Man in the Picture has far more resonance for me personally as its subject is Venice, the setting for several of my own books. As I've written a number of times in my novels, Venice can be a wonderful sunny place but it can also be a place of great darkness, and this story epitomizes more than any other, the true nature of the evil that can lurk behind a mask; the disparity between appearance and reality, the beautiful face of the city hiding her dark heart.

The eponymous picture is of a Venetian Carnevale scene, featuring a crowd of masked characters by the Grand Canal. It hangs in the rooms of an elderly Cambridge Don, Theo, who begins the story by revealing the secret of the picture to his young pupil Oliver. His revelations will go on to change Oliver's life in an exquisitely sinister sequence of events. No spoilers here; for the secret of the painting's evil power is the chilling central spine of the book.

hill_themaninthepictureOne of the most striking things about the book is how clearly you see the evil painting, in exquisite detail, as if it is hanging before your eyes; even though none of the editions that I have read featured an imagining of the picture as cover art. The skill lies solely in the author's deeply evocative description. As happens in my favourite horror movie, Ringu, just being in the presence of a malign artwork infects the lives of those who view it with utter evil. And because it is a novella, it's possible to read this chilling little book in one winter's evening by the fire. Just don't read it when you're alone in the house. 

Marina Fiorato's latest book is The Daughter of Siena (St. Martin's Griffin, May 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews May 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-26 21:23:45

A novella with exquisite chills

Charlaine Harris on Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Eyre, and the Three Musketeers
Charlaine Harris

harris-Charlaine-official-pic-smallIt's hard to pick and choose among the many books I read as a child. I've searched through my memory to identify three works I'm sure were main influences on my style and aesthetic.

The first would have to be the works of Edgar Allan Poe, particularly "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Telltale Heart." The darkness of the plotting, the mystery, Poe's rich vocabulary, the disturbing effect of his macabre imagination...all of these seeped down into my heart. Gruesome and literate.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is the template for the entire field of romance, as far as I'm concerned. The plain heroine, brought up by people who wish her ill, sent to a brutal school where she experiences her first friendship, and finally hired by the mysterious Mr. Rochester to teach his ward, Jane is the prototype of a romantic protagonist without being at all "romantic" in character. Instead, she is full of common sense. She knows her place in the world, but she dares to step outside it for love: and she falls in love with the most unlikely and unsuitable man she's ever met, while she turns down the obvious and suitable offer from St. John Rivers. Then there's the whole mad-wife-in-the-attic as a classic obstacle to Jane's happiness, and the wedding that gets called off at the altar...how many books have followed that were variations on these themes?

dumas_threemusketeersFinally, I loved The Three Musketeers. If you've read the unexpurgated version, you'll know Alexandre Dumas' great adventure novel contains a lot of relationships that puzzled this innocent child of the '50s. But the deep friendship and camaraderie of the musketeers, their courage and élan, combined with their determined battle against their adversary (the malevolent and powerful Cardinal Richelieu) continue to be the epitome of adventure, in my mind. 

Charlaine Harris' latest book is Dead Reckoning (Ace, May 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews June 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-27 19:58:21

It's hard to pick and choose among the many books I read as a child. I've searched through my memory to identify three works I'm sure were main influences on my style and aesthetic.

Colin Cotterill on Spike Milligan's Puckoon
Colin Cotterill

cotterill_colinOr how the writing of an Irish comedian saved one Annoying Little Bugger

A lot of scholarly tomes have been written about Attention Deficit Disorder and the hardship it causes the poor victim. I had ADD back in the day when it was still called ALB (Annoying Little Bugger) so nobody felt any sympathy that I couldn't get through four pages of written text before gouging a swastika out of my desk with a penknife and rushing off to play football. The lack of a sympathetic syndrome left me unteachable. I was 13 so I had hormones where my aspirations ought to have been and I didn't see a lot of pretty girls in short skirts bouncing up and down in front of book readers.

The written word was annoying and I vowed never to waste my time with any book that didn't have the decency to be illustrated. I'd found a secondhand junk shop where I could satisfy my addiction to Mad magazine, Marvel Comics, and Health and Efficiency naturist journals for less than the cost of a bag of chips. By 14 I refused to do book reviews with the argument that I was a born-again dyslexic.

milligan_puckoonEnter Spike Milligan. I was a fan of a quite ridiculous radio programme called The Goon Show where a pack of man-children acted like idiots and captivated an entire generation of ALBs like me. Spike was my favourite and my hero. I had no doubt he was most certainly not a writer. Then one day I found his book, Puckoon.

Now I'm certain other essays in this series refer to the most profound, beautifully written, brilliant novels to burn their influence into the literary soul of the author. Puckoon was none of these. It was a thoroughly silly but hilarious book that told of political incorrectness on the Irish border. I laughed from front to back cover and it was only when I shut it that I realized I'd read an entire book. My love affair with Spike and probably the funniest book ever written died after his second and final book but how can a boy—particularly a boy who became a writer—ever forget his first time? 

Colin Cotterill's latest book is Killed at the Whim of a Hat (Minotaur Books, July 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews July 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-27 20:19:51

Or how the writing of an Irish comedian saved one Annoying Little Bugger

Lisa Unger on Truman Capote, Daphne Du Maurier, and Mary Shelley
Lisa Unger

LisaUngerAuthor-2012Three Doors to the Darkside

Like most writers, I have always been an avid reader. And my tastes in fiction, like my imagination, always tended toward darkness. But in my early attempts as a writer, I didn't explore the places that mesmerized me. My suburban, middle-class life was not especially dark. On my literary journey, three books acted as portals, offering me a passage into the dark side of human nature—not just as a reader but as a writer.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I love Truman Capote for his gorgeous prose and clear-eyed insight into the sad, frail human heart. Stunningly different from his novellas and short stories, In Cold Blood is a searing and disturbing account of the brutal murder of a Kansas family, as well as an unflinching psychological profile of their killers. Reading In Cold Blood, I was in turn fascinated, revolted and inspired. I knew after reading it that writing about crime was synonymous with writing about the human condition, and that it could be done with breathless beauty.

dumaurier_rebeccaRebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

I read Rebecca and was swept away by the powerful voice, the gut-wrenching suspense and the dark, twisted love story at its center. I was transported into the narrator's gothic world, could visualize each room of Manderley, and see the awful Mrs. Danvers lurking in dim hallways. There was something gripping about a very ordinary girl being drawn into a nightmare (a theme I find again and again in my own work). I've been addicted to thrillers with big themes and living, breathing characters—as a reader and as a writer—ever since.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley) was just 18 years old in 1816 when she wrote Frankenstein. She and Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron and spent a dreary summer trapped indoors by winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora. (Imagine!) She wrote in the preface of the 1831 edition, "How I, then a young girl, came to think of and then dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?" How indeed? This rich, gothic tale, was so human and so sad, so violent and frightening. I understood in reading it that I wasn't the first girl less intrigued by roses than by thorns.

I am fascinated by human nature and by motivations, by the idea of actions and consequences, and how people behave in extreme circumstances. Each of these books explore that territory in unique and gripping ways, and each of them offered me permission to open the creaking door and step inside. 

Lisa Unger's latest book is Darkness, My Old Friend (Crown, August 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews August 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-29 20:25:14

Three Doors to the Darkside 

Denise Hamilton on Nancy Drew
Denise Hamilton

hamilton_denise2Falling in love with the plucky girl sleuth

When I was 11, I discovered Nancy Drew and fell in love with the plucky girl sleuth. I'd ride my bike to the library and bring home batches of books each week in my plastic woven bike basket. Sometimes if I emerged with a really big haul, I'd cram them into the basket and put the overflow in a brown grocery bag, that I carried with one hand while steering with the other.

One afternoon I rode home with nine books. I read all evening (I was a flashlight-under-the-covers girl) and in the morning I feigned illness because I just had to finish the book. That day, I read three books, lounging in bed most of the day and eating hot buttered toast when I got hungry. For three days I faked it. My mom, who must have had her suspicions, caught on by the third day when I was still too sick for school but had to visit the library to replenish my book stash.

Nancy was SuperGirl to me. She was smart, pretty, independent, loyal, fearless, but most of all, she was so clever at finding the clues and sussing out the mystery. Her DNA is embedded in everything that I write.

keene_secretoftheoldclockAs an adult, I read "Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her" by Melanie Rehak and was struck by how Nancy's fictional escapades had helped save a girl's life. I forget the details in Melanie's wonderful book but I think the girl had been kidnapped and stuck in the trunk of a car. This resourceful girl managed to jimmy the lock and escape. When the media asked how she'd come up with such a clever idea, she replied, and I paraphrase: I asked myself, what would Nancy Drew have done?

I don't consciously ask myself that question as I write my own strong female characters, but I know that Nancy's adventures are firmly wedged in my subconscious, and that her cool, calm, dependable style has influenced my characters in ways both great and small, across a divide of more than 60 years. Nancy Drew rocks. 

Denise Hamilton's latest book is Damage Control (Scribner, September 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews September 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-29 20:51:56

Falling in love with the plucky girl sleuth

Duane Swierczynski on Lansdale, Schow, and Ferrigno
Duane Swierczynski

swierczynski_duaneGateway drugs into crime fiction

When I was a teenager, I read horror fiction like that kid from The Sixth Sense saw dead people: all the time. Stephen King, Clive Barker, John Skipp, Craig Spector and the other members of the so-called "splatterpunk" school were my literary heroes for pushing the boundaries of the genre—and quite often, good taste. Three horror writers in particular, though, served as my gateway drug into crime fiction. All at once I realized that crime fiction could be as intense as the scary stuff I was digging—you didn't need zombies, monsters, or demons. All you need are flawed human beings making bad decisions on the worst days of their lives.

Joe R. Lansdale's Cold in July (1989) was the first crime novel I read—or least, the first novel where I realized that, "Hey, this crime stuff is cool." I was a huge fan of Lansdale's horror stories, so I happily paid my $3.50 for that Bantam paperback which promised "a breathtaking novel of murder and suspense." Damn, did Lansdale deliver. Richard Dane shoots a burglar during a home invasion and spends the next 190 pages paying for it. You wouldn't believe how many surprises Lansdale packs into this slender, one-sitting read.

ferigno_horselatitudesSimilarly, I knew David J. Schow's name from short horror stories and his trailblazing horror movie-themed anthology Silver Scream. But his first novel, The Kill Riff (1988), isn't really horror at all—it's a down-and-dirty revenge thriller. Lucas Ellington's daughter was trampled to death at a rock concert, so he decides to go after those responsible. Namely, the band. Nobody packs as much muscle into a sentence as Schow. I mean, check out the opening line: "This time he would pull the trigger without blinking."

And finally, Robert Ferrigno wasn't known as a horror writer, but his debut The Horse Latitudes (1990) sure sounded like one, based on the back cover copy: "...a dangerous woman vanishes—lost in a dark California carnival of mad science, kinky sex, drug deals, sadism and murder." I still have that day-glo Avon paperback, and still marvel at lines like: "There were nights Danny missed Lauren so bad that he wanted to take a fat man and throw him through a plate-glass window." Noir has many definitions, but sometimes it means the monsters are us. 

Duane Swierczynski's latest book is Hell & Gone (Mulholland Books, October 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews October 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-29 21:23:11

Gateway drugs into crime fiction

Anne Perry on Dante's inferno
Anne Perry

perry_anneWe are not punished for our sins, but by them.

The book whose philosophy has held me more than any other is Dante's Inferno, written around 1310. I read it haltingly in Italian, and with speed and joy in English (preferably the Dorothy L. Sayers translation, with captions and fascinating footnotes). There is passion and music in it, wit, character, and imagination to equal that of any sci-fi or horror story. And the plot carries you forward at a hectic pace, always wondering what next.

Why do I care? We spend our lives fascinated with mankind, and with the quest to understand good and evil. Dante encapsulates the soul of it in his vision showing how we are not punished for our sins, but by them. It is not an external thing visited upon us by God, or fate. It is an internal change we have wrought in ourselves. Each bad choice diminishes us in a particular way, just as each good one adds to us.

His classification of sins is most thought-provoking. Lightest are the sins of the leopard—those of incontinence. In the middle are the sins of the lion—those of violence. Deepest are the sins of the wolf—those of fraud, deceit and betrayal—a capacity peculiar to man.

Among these lowest are flatterers (debasing the means of communication between individuals); forgers (destroying the means of trade); and propagandists (polluting all trust and belief between peoples). Pollution of the earth we now understand and condemn as damaging the very world we live in, and therefore all life. Who else grasped that in 1300?

alighieri_dante

Dante Alighieri in a 14th century painting attributed to Giotto,
in the chapel of the Bargello Palace in Florence.

For sheer enjoyment, and perhaps a touch of schadenfreude, there are the grotesque punishments so exquisitely fitting the crimes (e.g., the lustful swept along by violent winds, never allowed to rest; thieves who now cannot possess even their own bodily forms and are forever changing). It gives the term poetic justice a whole new meaning.

And there is the beauty. In that terrible place you still see Christ "walking the waters of Styx with unwet feet."

Every time I return to it I am caught up in the power of Dante's imagination and made to think again, "Am I turning myself into who I really want to be? If I saw my acts without the comfortable mask of self-delusion, would I still want them to be part of me?" Thank you, Dante Alighieri.

Anne Perry's latest book is A Christmas Homecoming (Ballantine, October 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews November 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 17:31:59

We are not punished for our sins, but by them.

Matt Rees on Mary Renault's the King Must Die
Matt Rees

rees_mattFrom myth to reality

In 1999, King Hussein fell sick. I was a Middle East correspondent for a British newspaper. I poked through the used books at a store on a narrow lane in Jerusalem, wondering if I ought to head over to Jordan.

I picked up a 1958 edition of Mary Renault's The King Must Die, a novel based on the historical circumstances which may lie behind the myth of the Minotaur. The title decided me. I paid a few shekels for the book and went off across the Jordan Valley. From Renault, I learned the need for empathy in a novelist. Critics used to suggest "Mary Renault" was the pseudonym of a male homosexual, assuming that a woman couldn't write so vividly about men and sex. In Mozart's Last Aria I strove for that depth of empathy in writing about my female, 18th-century narrator, Nannerl Mozart.

Renault recast stories we all think we know—the Minotaur, the trial of Socrates, Alexander's conquests—and forced us to accept that the heroes of that period had views (in particular, about sexuality) starkly different from ours. Through fiction, she redirected us from myth to reality.

renault_thekingmustdieI've tried to do something similar in all my books—first, in my Omar Yussef mysteries, with the Palestinians, who're often depicted as stereotypical terrorists or victims, not as real people; and now with Mozart, who has come to be viewed in the popular imagination as a musically gifted buffoon, whereas he was actually an intellectual of enlightened beliefs.

A week after I arrived in Amman, King Hussein succumbed to lymphoma. As his funeral cortege passed through somber crowds in the wind and rain, I happened to laugh at a remark by another journalist. An old Bedouin turned tearful, red eyes on me. I was ashamed of my laughter. For him, this wasn't a news story or even history. It was the passing of someone he loved.

It's his emotion that I remember about that day, not its political implications, and emotion is the heart of a novel. Every time I write, I have that old Bedouin's face in mind. Throughout the funeral, The King Must Die was in my pocket. 

Matt Rees' latest book is Mozart's Last Aria (Harper Perennial, November 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews December 2011 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 17:51:49

From myth to reality

Betty Webb on Agatha Christie's the Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Betty Webb

webb_bettyLiberation from literary snobbery and sexism

In college, I was a literary snob. I read the Russians, the Greeks, the French, and the Romans (as opposed to the Italians). Just about the only American authors I read were Roth, Updike, and Heller. Males all, not a genre writer in the bunch.

This changed abruptly when during one Christmas vacation a bout of flu sent me whimpering to bed. In between fits of coughing I stared at the ceiling, bored out of my snobby little mind. The only reading material on hand was a carton of Agatha Christies I'd been duped into buying a week earlier at a yard sale. The wily seller had layered the top row with literary tomes guaranteed to suck in a nose-in-the-air college sophomore like myself, but once I lugged my $5 bargain home, I discovered the other layers held nothing but Christie, Christie, Christie, a writer much too lowbrow for me. But having already read everything else in my TV-less apartment, I swallowed my pride and grabbed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

christie_murderofrogerackroydWhereupon Agatha Christie changed my life.

By the time I finished Ackroyd, Dame Agatha had liberated me from my ill-founded literary snobbery and sexism. She'd demonstrated that the logic inherent in a good puzzle ensures smart reading for smart people. As I read my way through the rest of her books, I discovered that—surprise, surprise—female sleuths could be logical, too. On the downside, Christie also taught me that mystery novels are as addictive as crack, so after closing the last book (A Murder Is Announced), I took myself to the nearest used bookstore, where I purchased more Christies. But that wasn't all. Her intelligent plotting had whetted my appetite for other mystery authors—especially the females—so for the next few months, I abandoned Roth, Updike, et al, to immerse myself in the feminine side of murder and mayhem. When the pendulum swung back, as it always does, I began reading the guys, too.

The writer I eventually became learned the subtleties of character development from P.D. James, the importance of setting from Tony Hillerman, restraint in confrontational dialogue from James Sallis, and the interconnectedness of every human being from Kate Atkinson.

Yet of all lessons learned, it is Agatha Christie's insistence on logic that remains paramount. 

Betty Webb's latest book is Desert Wind (Poisoned Pen Press, February 2012).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews January 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 18:22:59

Liberation from literary snobbery and sexism

Leslie Meier on Nurse Nancy, Annie Oakley, and Agatha Christie
Leslie Meier

meier_leslieConfessions of a lifelong compulsive reader

The term compulsive reader doesn't come close to describing me—reading is like breathing and I am never without a book. Not an ebook reader—a real book. The best books come from used book shops and have pages that lie flat, and the paper is worn and soft and dog-eared here and there, and the whole thing smells a bit musty and perhaps a dried leaf or a forgotten shopping list or note is tucked among the pages.

I taught myself to read from my Nurse Nancy book, the Little Golden Book that came with Band-Aids inside the cover. I made my mother read it to me so many times that I knew it by heart and then I was able to make the connection between the letters and the words. When I got to school I found the reading lessons in first grade terribly boring, but fortunately there was a public library located adjacent to my school. One day at recess—this would never be allowed now—I went in and got myself a library card.

annieoakleyMy first real book was a biography of Squanto, given to me one Christmas by my grandfather. Other books followed: I got Little Women when I was eight, and I desperately wanted to be a March girl, but my most favorite book was a biography of Annie Oakley. My grandfather had seen her perform at Madison Square Garden when he was a little boy and I loved hearing him tell how she accidentally shot out the arc lights that illuminated the performance. 

Of course I read the Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a girl; they were a special treat and highly prized as a birthday present. I didn't really get into mysteries, however, until I was in college and had a summer job keeping house for an elderly woman on Cape Cod. Her library was full of mysteries and I happily discovered Agatha Christie and Charlotte MacLeod.

I wish I could say I keep up with serious modern fiction, but I don't. I'd rather re-read At Bertram's Hotel than some critically acclaimed prize-winning novel. I've been on panels with writers who are quite full of themselves and apparently write "literature" but I'm happy turning out a funny, entertaining story that will keep the reader turning the pages—exactly the sort of book I like to read. 

Leslie Meier's latest book is Chocolate Covered Murder (Kensington, December 2011).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews February 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 19:07:11

Confessions of a lifelong compulsive reader

Jonathan Maberry on Travis Mcgee
Jonathan Maberry

maberry_jonathanIdealist and iconoclast

We all have a piece of writing that speaks to us. Not something that shouted once, but something that continues to whisper to you, to engage you. To connect with some essential part of you—as reader, as writer, and as a person.

For me that has always been the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. All 21 of them. I first heard of them while vacationing in Fort Lauderdale way back in 1978, just as the 17th book in the series, The Empty Copper Sea, was debuting. I'd never heard of MacDonald or McGee before, but a local bookseller told me the character "lived" there in Lauderdale. I bought the book on a whim and settled onto a beach chair to see if it was any good.

Next morning I was back to buy two more McGee novels. Then I went back and bought the whole series. I devoured those books. But it wasn't simply that they were excellent reads—some of the content was dated even by the "modern" standards of 1978—there was something else about the stories.

There was Travis McGee.

He was unlike any character I'd yet encountered in fiction. He was tough and a bit of a smart-ass, but that was pretty common in the private eye fiction I'd been reading. He was smart, but there are a lot of smart detectives. He was romantic and sexual, but that was also common in books, movies, and TV.

macdonald_emptycopperseaNo, the qualities that set Travis McGee apart went deeper than that. He was the first truly intellectual character I'd read. Not merely an intellect, but someone whose understanding of things outweighed the sum total of what he'd learned. And he'd learned a lot. He was a thinker, a reasoned, a self-effacing but often dead-on philosopher. He was an idealist and iconoclast.

And...he could be hurt. Despite his obvious toughness, his many scars, his fighting skills, and his bravado, this was a character who risked his heart, his soul, and his ideals in every case. A thinking hero for thinking readers.

When I created Joe Ledger, the battered and psychologically damaged hero of my thriller series, I was aware that Joe had a role model. Or, maybe an uncle.

A week ago I got a notice from Audible that the entire library of Travis McGee novels are being released unabridged on audio. I snapped up the first seven and am already deep into the third. Sure, some elements in the stories are dated (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964!), but the insights into politics, society, people, relationships, our self-image, roles that we all play, and the evil that men do...yeah, those are still dead-on. My old friend McGee has returned to whisper these timeless truths in my ear. 

Jonathan Maberry's latest book is Assassin's Code (St. Martin's Griffin, April 2012).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews April 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 19:21:26

Idealist and iconoclast

Marcia Clark on James Ellroy's Killer on the Road
Marcia Clark

clark_marciaAn inspirational, even game-changing experience

I will never forget the experience of reading James Ellroy's Killer on the Road. It was back in the '80s (I've seen it listed as having been written in '99, but it actually came out ten years earlier under another name) and I'd been reading murder mysteries for quite a few years by then. I started as a child with Nancy Drew and never stopped—even when I was prosecuting homicides full time. So when I ran into Killer on the Road, I was no neophyte mystery reader.

Killer was my first experience with James Ellroy's brilliant prose and plotting, and it knocked me out. Centered in the mind of a serial killer, it evoked exactly the kind of warped self-absorption I knew to be so true of the breed. And unlike so many others who wrote in this sub-genre, Ellroy never glamorized his subject. He delivered Michael Martin Plunkett in all his depraved, despicable, and confounding sickness with no holds barred. In that book, as never before, I felt I'd climbed inside the belly of the beast.

James Ellroy himself has said that he'd never write another serial killer novel, that he doesn't want to glorify these monsters who are, in reality, statistically insignificant. He's 100 percent right about that and I never intend to write a serial killer novel either, for those same reasons. I'm sure Mr. Ellroy, one of the most brilliant writers to ever put pen to paper, would say Killer was not his best work.

ellroy_killerontheroadIt's not.

But the book was an inspirational, even game-changing experience for me. Ellroy's vivid descriptions—more powerful for their haiku-like brevity—and the way he uses a detached, almost prosaic voice to deliver the sock-you-in-the-gut horror of a terrifyingly twisted mind was simply sheer mastery. Although I've read many other Ellroy books since then and have loved them all, Killer on the Road moved my reading and appreciation of the mystery/thriller genre to a whole new level. It and he still inspire me today. 

Marcia Clark's latest book is Guilt by Degrees (Mulholland Books, May 2012).

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews May 2012 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.

Teri Duerr
2013-08-30 20:10:51

An inspirational, even game-changing experience