As any fan of Simon Templar, the Saint, should know by now, this entry in the prolific Max Allan Collins’ Disaster Series (featuring crime writers solving murder mysteries in the midst of infamous catastrophes—i.e., Agatha Christie in The London Blitz Murders, Edgar Rice Burroughs in The Pearl Harbor Murders) has the debonair and witty Leslie Charteris, creator of the forever-modern Robin Hood, casting a monocled eye on suspicious goings-on aboard the starcrossed Zeppelin’s final flight. Feverishly paced, with characters both amusing and sinister, and dialogue snappy enough to have come from a Howard Hawks movie of the day, this audio is a sheer delight, enhanced in no small way by Simon Vance’s superb narration, providing spot on accents from the veddy British to Germanic grunts and all nationalities in between.
James Anderson’s lighthearted puzzle mysteries both parodied and paid homage to the classic English Country House Mystery.
James Anderson’s lasting contribution to mystery fiction consists of three novels about English house-party murders, all taking place in the same country house, Lord Burford’s historic Alderley, and all investigated by the same easily-overlooked but sneakily clever policeman, Inspector Wilkins: The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy (1975; US 1977), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat (1981), and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003). Clearly reflecting a love of the classical puzzles of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, unapologetically artificial and light-hearted, they managed both to parody and to provide genuine examples of the traditional British detective novel between World Wars.
James Anderson (1936-2007) was born in Wiltshire of Welsh parents and lived most of his life near Cardiff. He had a history degree from University of Reading and listed as pre-novel-writing jobs “salesman, copywriter and freelance journalist…. His interests include[d] cricket and vintage films and he [was] a committed Christian.” He was unmarried “though not from any lack of inclination.”
Not notably prolific, with 13 books over a career of more than thirty years, Anderson did not start out as a traditional puzzle-spinner. When he entered the mystery field in the late 1960s, the classical detective story was out of favor, to put it mildly. True, Agatha Christie was still writing and making the bestseller list; Golden Agers like Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen were still producing new books; P.D. James and Emma Lathen had both emerged in the early 1960s. But with the great success of Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Len Deighton, and others, international thrillers were in the ascendency. One or two mysterious deaths, ran the popular wisdom, were not enough to intrigue the jaded reader; the fate of the world had to be hanging by a thread in every book. Longtime mystery fans read spy fiction because that’s what you were supposed to read, and writers new to the field concluded that was what you were supposed to write.
So Anderson started with spy stuff, and he was good at it. His first novel, Assassin (1969; US 1971), introduced Mikael Petros, citizen of an unnamed European country, who took on the title role reluctantly and under duress. In The Abolition of Death (1974; US 1975), an effectively plotted and written semi-science-fictional thriller full of Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces, Petros must effect the escape of a scientist who has developed a drug that will retard aging and may eventually make immortality possible. The potential ramifications of such a discovery are explored on practical and moral grounds, and the novel has a strong religious undertone.
The first line of Blood-Stained Egg Cosy might have suggested Anderson was still in the land of international intrigue, albeit of an earlier time. One character asks another, “How well do you know Adolf Hitler?” But it’s soon clear this is quite a different kind of mystery. Most promising for traditionalist nostalgics are the list of characters, followed by a floor plan of the first floor of Alderley. Many of the house party guests are introduced in short scenes at the beginning of the book, very much in the Agatha Christie tradition. They include a wealthy Texan and his secretary, a poor young woman who recently lost her salesgirl job, a Member of Parliament (brother to the Earl of Burford), a retired Naval officer, a foreign envoy and his aide, and a “young man about town.” There’s also a butler on hand to draw suspicion and the menacing figure of a society jewel thief known as the Wraith. Other familiar elements include the host’s gun collection, a secret passage, the prospect of 13 at dinner, stormy weather, and a gathering of the suspects at the end, but they are played with a completely straight face and worked out with satisfying complexity and generous clues.
When the local cop appears on the scene almost halfway through the book, he proves to be easily underestimated in the manner of Columbo. A self-described “simple country bobby,” Detective Inspector Wilkins is somewhat in the mode of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef, but without that character’s underlying arrogance. His frequent tagline: “I’m not sanguine.”
When I reviewed this book for EQMM in June 1977, editor Queen (Fred Dannay) thought me excessive in my praise. (That’s okay—he didn’t always see eye to eye with Anthony Boucher, either.) I wondered if my pleasure at encountering an intricate, pure puzzle novel caused me to overrate it, and also whether Anderson could possibly repeat the trick. Vindication came with Mutilated Mink Coat, in which murder and Wilkins return to Alderley, this time with Scotland Yard’s pretentious and arrogant St. John Algood also on the case. Reminding me in his apparently low self-esteem of Richard and Frances Lockridge’s Nathan Shapiro, Wilkins again got the job done. Though 39 Cufflinks was not published until 22 years later, I suspect it was written shortly after the others. It is another gem.
Anderson would write several nonseries books—Additional Evidence and Angel of Death are notable for their clever plotting—and a couple of Murder She Wrote novelizations of TV scripts, before Donald Bain got the permanent job of creating new cases for Jessica Fletcher. But it’s those three Inspector Wilkins cases that are his principal legacy in the mystery genre—and a continuing joy to readers.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.
Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946). Photo: Columbia Pictures.
Recently, I had the sublime experience of visiting the famous cine-paradise, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York—a place I’d heard about for years and always wanted to visit. Invited up there by Jared Case, the Head of Cataloging and Access at its Motion Picture Department, I got a sneak peek at many of the facility’s wonders, including gorgeous Hollywood studio stills, posters, press books, and other archival items.
A distinct highlight was a glorious and haunting painted plaster mask made of Marlene Dietrich’s face, so delicate and exquisite I could barely look at it. I had always believed those cheek bones of hers were mostly Hurrell-lit fantasies. As it turns out, those planar majesties were God-given.
The occasion of my visit was to introduce a screening of Gilda (1946), and it became the first time I ever saw this film on a big screen—a gleaming print that swathed us in satiny black as if we were Gilda’s gloved fingers.
The story is simple. Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), a ne’er-do-well gambler, hustles himself into a casino job and a fast friendship with the mysterious Ballin Mundson (George Mac ready). But everything changes when Ballin returns from a trip with his beautiful wife, Gilda (Rita Hayworth), with whom Johnny once shared a tumultuous romance that ended with the couple hating each other. Ballin charges Johnny with watching over Gilda, who resents both men’s obsessive and frequently cruel attempts to control her. The ensuing love triangle is, at turns, violent, tortured, and deeply romantic.
I first saw Gilda as a young girl, age nine or ten, on television, and I remember being enraptured. It seemed so glamorous—the glittering casino, the evening gowns and tuxedos, the exotic Buenos Aires locale. Beautiful Rita, handsome Glenn Ford, and their grand romance.
And, like everyone else I was transfixed during the famous scene of Gilda, in that iconic black dress, doing a gloved striptease to the lowdown tune, “Put the Blame on Mame.”
I remember watching her in that strapless dress, tight as a second skin, and wondering how she could keep it up—the aerodynamics of it—it signified to me the magical properties of womanhood.
I distinctly remember thinking, “This is what life is.”
In college, I saw the film again—and it was another a revelatory experience, but of a different kind.
I sat there, waiting for my childhood rapture—waiting to slip into the sumptuous, romantic story again. What unfurled instead was a dark, tortured world.
I realized that Gilda isn’t the center of the film at all, but is instead a glistening object. Much like the openly symbolic sword cane Ballin carries (which he calls “his little friend”), she is something to be passed between the two men, Ballin and Johnny, whose deepest feelings are, of course, for each other. I saw for the first time the dark, nihilistic thread (or zipper) through the satin center of the movie and it became even more fascinating, richer…. I felt like I had grown into it. It had showed me about adulthood, just not the adulthood I’d imagined.
Gilda presents a world of complexity, where feelings are never simple, every happy-ever-after has a price, and none of us completely know ourselves or what we’re capable of.
Love, in Gilda—or, perhaps more correctly, desire—is about power, powerlessness, control, and lack of control. We see this through the movie’s obsessive, self-conscious voyeurism—everyone seems to be watching each other, spying through windows and blinds, peering around corners, or through masks, but rarely ever touching.
The movie’s dark heart seems summed up in Johnny’s breathless voiceover, confessing, as he leaves Gilda, his old flame, with her husband Ballin, his new one:
It was all I could do to walk away. I wanted to go back up in that room and hit her. What scared me was, I-I wanted to hit him too. I wanted to go back and see them together with me not watching.
I wanted to know.
As slick and big-studio a film noir as it is, Gilda is noir to the rotten core. Because love here is a curse, a burden, and a weapon (cane, whip, glove). Love is about pain.
Love and hate, desire and contempt are not opposites at all but are in fact utterly inseparable. Or one and the same. As Ballin famously tells Gilda, “Hate can be a very exciting emotion ....There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.”
It’s chilling when Ballin says this. Later, when Hayworth’s Gilda echoes that line, in a desperate whisper, it may be the sexiest and saddest moment I’ve ever seen in film.
Watching Gilda a few weeks ago in preparation for the evening at Eastman House, a whole new shimmering layer peeked through.
Yes, I had an added appreciation for actors I’ve come to love, such as the delicious Joseph Calleia as the understanding cop, Obregon. But most of all I saw in Hayworth’s performance what I’d missed before, its pathos, her awareness that she matters less as a person than as a totem these two men wield to show their power, their loyalty, their complicated feelings towards each other.
Even the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease scene now seems very different to me. Preceded by a musical number where she is precise, formal, ebullient, and quite feminine, in this number she is ballsy-burlesque, skittering raggedly by the end into something like desperation. Until it is that.
“Put the Blame on Mame” is, after all, a song about how a woman is to blame for the great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, everything—just as Gilda’s beauty becomes the excuse for every act of depravity and control in the movie…she is a fantasy projection, not a real woman.
It’s all the more poignant given Hayworth’s tortured personal life, exploited by her father, her husbands, and Harry Cohn, head of Columbia. I hesitate even to quote the much-overquoted Hayworth line, reflecting on her own sad romantic history, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” Watching the film now, it seems clear that Gilda herself might say the same thing.
So in fact, I think now my nine-year-old self was getting a peek into the adult world, its beauty and its dark seams too.
Spoiler-alert: people, especially noir aficionados, always talk about the ending as being the one blemish on the movie; the fact that the production code demanded we learn that Gilda wasn’t the promiscuous adulteress that Johnny—and we—are led to believe.
But, “happy ending” aside (who, after having watched them tear at each other for 110 minutes, really believes these two will go onto a happy life together?), I love that Johnny is wrong. I love that we learn Gilda is innocent of the charges. Trapped between two men who cannot reckon with their own desires, she is the great beating heart of the movie. Guilty of nothing, of everything.
Megan Abbott is the Edgar Award-winning author of crime novels including Dare Me, The End of Everything, Bury Me Deep, Queenpin, The Song Is You, and Die a Little as well as a nonfiction book on hardboiled fiction and film noir.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.
John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham, and the Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
John Dickson Carr and Margery Allingham
In March 1949, John Dickson Carr was living in Mamaroneck, Connecticut. Margery Allingham, a friend from the Detection Club in London, was in the United States to publicize her latest book, More Work for the Undertaker. Carr presented Allingham and her husband, Philip (“Pip”) Youngman Carter, with a copy of his newly published The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and inscribed it as “Aunt Sally.”
I would like to approach the importance of this inscription somewhat obliquely. Nowadays, collectors often prefer to have only the author’s signature on their book, without any additional remarks—no note from the author about to whom the book is inscribed, no date, in fact no additional writing of any kind—only an autograph, usually on the title page beneath the author’s printed name, which is crossed out with a single line (only the gauche would use two lines thus making an X over the name). When I asked Colin Dexter to inscribe my copy of Last Seen Wearing, he told me that it was one of his early books and I therefore should prefer having only his signature. I insisted (successfully) that it be inscribed to me by name.
But it was not always thus. Frederic Dannay, in an early issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, described the variety of autographed books, and his article was reprinted in In the Queen’s Parlor by Ellery Queen (1957). Dannay said that a simple signature is the least interesting. Better is a signature and a message, but without a recipient. Then come inscribed copies with autograph, recipient, message, and date. Books in the third category vary in interest depending on the identity of the recipient and the significance of the message (it’s also more desirable to have the inscription dated near the publication date).
Margery Allingham's personal copy of The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Harper & Brothers, 1949) inscribed and presented to her and her husband by John Dickson Carr. (From the Mystery Scene library.)
The best inscriptions tell a story—or hint at a story. When John Dickson Carr presented a copy of his second novel, The Lost Gallows, to his grandmother he included a note that it was in memory of times that he “told her better stories than this.” What stories? Carr didn’t say, but Carr fans have every right to speculate. To take another example, when Vincent Starrett inscribed a copy of The Unique Hamlet “To A. J. Morin after two glasses of cognac,” we can certainly wonder whether the cognac put Starrett in a generous mood, or if the gift was a planned part of a convivial evening. Starrett would write other intriguing inscriptions, for instance: “For Scott Cunningham some years after publication, and some hours before daylight.”
Sometimes authors present copies of their books to other writers, and often these inscriptions are the most interesting of all. I don’t know whether Carr met Pip Carter in the 1930s, when Carter was designing dust jackets. At least five of the British editions of Carr’s books have Carter dust jackets. But Carr certainly knew Carter’s wife Margery Allingham through The Detection Club in London. The club had been founded in 1930 by Anthony Berkeley and included luminaries as charter members—G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, G.D. H. and M. Cole, Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, John Rhode, Dorothy L. Sayers, and others. Margery Allingham became a member in 1934, and two years later Carr became the first American member (though living in England), and quickly was chosen as the Honorary Secretary.
Carr’s memories of the Detection Club and its members tended to be rather bibulous. He later wrote about “a somewhat drunken weekend with Margery and Pip Carter at their home in Essex,” and that may help explain why the inscription from Carr is not easy to read. After considerable help from my family, I interpret it (perhaps translate it would be more accurate) as:
“With the kindest regards to Mr & Mrs Philip Y. Carter and a happy and safe return to dear old London. Aunt Sally, March 15, 1949”
(I have no doubt that I have misread several words...)
Which leads us back to the fascination of author inscriptions, especially when there is a hint of an untold story. Why did Carr call himself “Aunt Sally”? Aunt Sally was (and still remains in parts of England) a pub and fairground game—and readers who recall The Punch and Judy Murders know of Carr’s interest in fairground amusements. According to an 1866 account, “Aunt Sally is a big black doll on a stick, with a pipe in her mouth, and an orange or some toy for a prize, which you win by hitting her with a stick if you are lucky.” By extension an Aunt Sally is a person or object to throw at, to make a subject of ridicule or criticism, which is often unfair. Was there a joke of some sort between Carr and Allingham making him an Aunt Sally?
We shall probably never know—but always be intrigued.
Two of the book jackets that Pip Carter designed for the Heinemann editions of John Dickson Carr’s “Carter Dickson” mysteries.
John Dickson Carr was chosen by the Doyle family to write the authorized biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and given unprecedented access to the author’s papers. Carr had worked with Adrian Conan Doyle, the youngest son of the famous author, on radio plays of the Professor Challenger stories. Adrian was delighted with the result, which was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. The two later collaborated on stories that were published in the 1952 collection The Exploits of Sherlock Holmes.
The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by John Dickson Carr, Harper & Brothers, 1949
Artists in Crime: An Illustrated Survey of Crime Fiction First Edition Dust Wrappers 1920-1970, by John Cooper and B.A. Pike, Scolar Press (UK), 1995
John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles, by Douglas G. Greene, Otto Penzler Books, 1995
The Adventures of Margery Allingham, by Julia Jones, Golden Duck, 1999
Douglas G. Greene is the author of the award-winning biography John Dickson Carr: The Man Who Explained Miracles (1995). He is also the publisher of Crippen & Landru.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #128.
With Along Came a Spider in 1993, James Patterson launched the beginning of one of mystery fiction’s most iconic characters—Alex Cross. It hardly seems possible that 20 years have gone by since Cross became involved in the kidnapping of two children by their teacher in Along Came a Spider.
A devoted family man, Cross is a brilliant psychologist who works as a profiler for the FBI and the Washington, D.C., police, a job that brings him into the crosshairs of many a villain.
Alex Cross also relaunched Patterson’s career as a novelist. Patterson’s novels are mega-bestsellers, having sold more than 280 million copies. Patterson has had more New York Times bestsellers than any other writer, ever, according to Guinness World Records. Currently, he is No. 2 on Forbes annual list of the top-earning authors. (E.L. James of 50 Shades is No. 1.)
In addition to the thrillers, Patterson also has several novels for children and young adults and vigorously promotes his ongoing campaign to get children interested in reading. Earlier this year, he teamed up with two-time Miami Heat champion and New York Times bestselling author Dwayne Wade (A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger than Basketball) for a national online webcast for kids across the country.
November 4, 2013, was declared “James Patterson Day” in Washington, D.C., in honor of his donation of books to every middle school in D.C. and for his positive portrayal of the District in the Alex Cross detective series.
Many of Patterson’s best sellers are co-authored by another writer. The only exceptions are Patterson’s Alex Cross novels, which are all his work.
Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of Alex Cross’s debut, which will be celebrated by the release of Patterson’s latest novel Cross My Heart. In this novel, Cross becomes the obsession of a madman who wants to prove that he is the greatest criminal mind in history. To achieve this, the criminal will use Cross’ family as a weapon.
Mystery Scene was able to get an exclusive question and answer interview with Patterson before Cross My Heart lands on the bookshelves and reading devices.
Question: Your first novel The Thomas Berryman Affair won the Edgar when it was published in 1976 and you published regularly until Along Came a Spider; What prompted your to write a series?
Answer: I came up with the idea for Alex and I got hooked. I wanted to keep following him, seeing what he’d do next, how his family would grow and change, and how he might change. It’s like meeting someone you really like and wanting to keep the friendship alive – Alex spoke to me and he hasn’t stopped since that first conversation.
Q: How did you devise the character of Alex Cross?
A: I wanted to create a character that was multi-faceted; I wanted the audience to care about not just his ability to profile and catch criminals, but his family life, his interior life. I wanted something more than the loner detective who went home to no one and drank himself to sleep at the end of each day. And I think with Alex, you not only care about him and his work, but about that crazy, loud, loving family of his, too.
Q: Is it true in your original manuscript that Alex begun as a woman?
A: When I first started with Alex, the character was a woman. It started with about 60 pages of a character named "Alexis," though the last name wasn’t "Cross.”
Q: Why did you make Alex Cross an African-American?
A: Well, I think anyone can agree that at that time African-American men weren’t being realistically and fairly represented in a lot of mainstream writing and definitely not in writing by white authors. Most African-American characters in a lot of these thrillers were drawn as caricatures—as criminals, or as one-note representations of people that showed nothing of a real, human side. And I wanted to write a character who challenged all the stereotypes out there. Alex is responsible, a good father, uses his brains rather than his brawn. But I think what stands out most about Alex is that his being African-American really doesn’t, at the end of the day, matter. He’s a man, committed to his work and his family, and he’s relatable in so many ways, to so many people.
Q: Along Came a Spider became a hit fairly quickly, did this surprise you?
A: I knew I cared what happened next to Alex—and I was glad to see that others agreed, but I never took it for granted that it would happen. It was a nice surprise.
Q: Why so many standalone novels before Alex Cross?
A: I enjoyed the standalones I wrote a lot (and still enjoy the ones I write each year), but when I “met” Alex, I found I was intrigued by him—I didn’t have him completely figured out and I wanted to know more about him and so I just kept exploring with him, and I still am.
Q: In looking at your Alex Cross series, is there anything you wished you’d done differently with Alex Cross?
A: When I look back, I see an evolution with Alex, my own writing and the series, but I don’t think I’d change anything. Alex and I grew together through much of my career over the last 20 years and he feels like an old friend by this point. We’ve learned from one another and I think made each other better.
Q: What pleases you most about the Alex Cross series?
A: When people tell me that they would never have become a reader if it weren’t for Alex and his adventures – those moments mean a lot. When people discover him and make him, and me, a part of their lives – what’s more satisfying than that?
Q: Which Alex Cross novel are you most proud of?
A: It’s hard to pick a favorite—Along Came a Spider because it was my first with Alex, is one I really am proud of. I truly enjoyed Cross [also published as Alex Cross] and revisiting Alex’s past, his most personal and painful moments—and seeing it come alive on the big screen was a thrill, as well.
Q: How has Alex Cross changed through the years?
A: Alex was special because of his ability to use his brain over his brawn; but the fact is, over the years, he did have to learn to become more of a physical fighter, a tougher character, as the world around him changed. I think he’s risen to the challenge quite nicely.
Q: What is the future of Alex Cross?
A: Are you fishing for spoilers? I’ll never tell! But I will say that there’s a lot more adventure and more of a certain villain we dealt with in Cross My Heart in the next installment out in 2014—Hope To Die. Everything Alex loves most is at stake.
Q: You’ve had a number of co-authors, but not on the Alex Cross novels, right? Why not?
A: I work really well in a collaborative environment—but I find that with Alex, it just seems to come together so naturally that I’ve kept him for myself. I suppose you could say Alex is the co-author there!
Q: What’s your opinion of the movies based on the Alex Cross novels?
A: I’ve enjoyed all of the movies based on Alex Cross, especially the actors they’ve cast in each film. It doesn’t get much better than Morgan Freeman, and in the latest movie I was just blown away by Tyler Perry, Ed Burns and Matthew Fox. Watching your characters come to life on the big screen never gets old, and I hope to have more of that in the future.
Q: Your support of literacy programs and young readers are quite famous. How and why did you get involved with literacy?
A: When my son Jack was 8, he wasn’t a strong reader. He’s a smart, curious kid, but he hadn’t found books that really grabbed his attention. Sue [his wife] and I decided that we’d make him into a reader, and so that summer we told him he didn’t have to do chores, but he did have to read several books. It took time, and effort, and finding the right books, but by the end of the summer he’d read more than a few that he really loved, and that was it—he was hooked. I think it is really up to us, as parents to take this mission into our hands. There’s not a lot we can control or change these days—not the healthcare system, not climate change and not the economy. But getting the kids we love reading? That’s something we can do, and it’s something with a real, lasting impact. Getting our kids reading is saving their lives—period.
Q: How many books will be published under James Patterson this year?
A: Between my books for grown-ups and the kids stuff, 13. What can I say – I can’t get enough of this stuff!
Photos: Top, James Patterson, photo courtesy Deborah Feingold
second: James Patterson and Dwyane Wade. Photo courtesy Hachette
Anyone who has been to a mystery writers conference, be it Bouchercon or SleuthFest, knows there’s always an auction in which books, trips and baskets of items are up for grabs.
The highlight of these auctions is always the character names that are up for bid. For a price, a person can have their name—or that of a friend or even a pet—immortalized as a character in the author’s upcoming novel.
The money goes to a charity or to help pay for future conferences, so everyone wins.
There the years there have been some standout auctions. At the Las Vegas Bouchercon, several authors’ contributions, including Lee Child and Ian Rankin, went for several thousands of dollars.
A few years ago at another Bouchercon—help me out here, readers, as I cannot remember which one—the chance to be a named character in Charlaine Harris’ last Sookie Stackhouse novel came down to two bidders. Both of whom were bidding nearly $8,000 each. (Again, readers may remember the precise figure.) Harris, generous person that she is, said she would use both names if they each would hold with that bid. They did, and the charity of choice received a big boost in funds that evening.
In The Gods of Guilt, Dr. Stratton Sterghos appears midway through the novel, playing a minor but pivotal role in the plot. Sterghos is described in the novel as a retired obstetrician. He doesn’t have any lines of dialogue because in the novel he is visiting his daughter in Florida.
That description isn’t far from the truth. The real Stratton Sterghos is, at age 80, still a practicing gynecologist in Broward County where he and his wife, Vivien, live. Sterghos moved to South Florida during the 1960s to do his residency at Jackson Memorial in Miami. The literally thousands of babies he delivered are, no doubt, scattered throughout the country.
Sterghos’ fiction debut was bought during an auction for the Broward Bulldog.com, a not-for-profit online newspaper, by his daughter, Nicole Sterghos Brochu, the youngest of his four children and a reporter for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. (Full disclosure here—the editor of the Broward Bulldog is a good friend of mine; on the Bulldog site you'll also find an interview I did with Connelly earlier this year. In addition, I know Brochu. I also worked for the Sun Sentinel for 29 years and was there when Connelly was a staff writer. I didn’t know him then though I think I said hi to him once in the hall.)
The Gods of Guilt brings back Mickey Haller, Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer character. In The Gods of Guilt, Mickey’s latest is client is accused of murdering one of Mickey’s former clients, a woman he tried to help.
From the start, the evidence points to a bigger conspiracy. As Mickey tries to unravel the case he also grapples with the thought that his own actions years before may have led to the woman’s death. Here’s a link to my review that ran in the Sun Sentinel.In addition to the launch of The Gods of Guilt, Connelly has been involved with the filming of Bosch, a TV series based on his Harry Bosch novels. Veteran character actor Titus Welliver is playing the detective in Amazon’s first drama series. Connelly was on the set during some of the filming and has a video diary on his web site.
I also want to give a shout out to Jeanne Rolwing of Charleston, Mo., who had the winning bid to be a contractor in Elaine Viets’ Fixing to Die. Viets’ character name was part of a fund-raiser for St. Henry’s Catholic School. (Again, full disclosure—Charleston is my hometown and I attended St. Henry’s.)
And here’s a shout out to anyone who ends up a character in an author’s book. It’s not just fun to see your name immortalized in a novel—the money goes to support a good cause.
And if you have a story about how your name was used in a novel, let us know.
(A portion of this column ran in the Sun Sentinel.)
This blog doesn't often receive breaking news, but today is an exception. We received word about the next Grand Masters less than an hour ago.
Mystery Scene offers its congratulations to two deserving authors chosen by the Mystery Writers of America as the next Grand Masters and to a bookstore who will be honored with the Raven.
Robert Crais and Carolyn Hart have been chosen as the 2014 Grand Masters by Mystery Writers of America (MWA).
MWA's Grand Master Award represents the pinnacle of achievement in mystery writing and was established to acknowledge important contributions to this genre, as well as for a body of work that is both significant and of consistent high quality, the organization stated in its press release.
Crais and Hart will be presented with their awards at the Edgar Awards Banquet, which will be held at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on Thursday, May 1, 2014.
Crais started his career as a screenwriter for such major TV crime shows as Hill Street Blues, Cagney & Lacey, and Miami Vice. During the mid-1980s, he left television and began writing novels full-time. The death of his father in 1985 inspired Crais to create his main character Elvis Cole using elements of his own life as the basis of the story. It resulted in his breakout novel, The Monkey’s Raincoat, and was nominated for The Best First Novel Edgar Award.
Crais has 11 novels in the Elvis Cole series. Crais has been nominated for every major award in the mystery field. (A profile of Crais was the cover of our Winter 2010 issue, No. 118.)
A native of Oklahoma City, Hart began her writing career at her local newspaper. In 1964 Hart won a contest looking for a mystery novel that would appeal to adolescent girls which resulted in her first published book. She wrote a number of books for young adults over the course of the next seven years.
In 1972, she turned to writing for an adult audience and has published 50 novels, a remarkable achievement for any author. Hart has written 23 novels in her Death on Demand series. She also writes two other series, the Henrie O mysteries and the Bailey Ruth Raeburn series. Her novel Letter From Home was awarded the Agatha for the best mystery novel of 2003 and was a New York Times notable book. She has been nominated for many writing awards, and is a past president of Sisters in Crime.
(Mystery Scene profiled Carolyn Hart in the Issue No. 115.)
Previous Grand Masters include Ken Follett, Margaret Maron, Martha Grimes, Sara Paretsky, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, Bill Pronzini, Stephen King, Marcia Muller, Dick Francis, Mary Higgins Clark, Lawrence Block, P.D. James, Ellery Queen, Daphne du Maurier, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Agatha Christie.
Established in 1953, the Raven Award recognizes outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. The 2014 Raven will go to Aunt Agatha's of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Aunt Agatha’s owners, Robin and Jamie Agnew are champions of both established and new authors, making the store a must-stop destination for author tours in the Midwest. They are among the founding members of the Kerrytown Bookfest, an event that celebrates those who create books and those who read them. The Bookfest's goal is to highlight the area’s rich heritage in the book and printing arts while showcasing local and regional individuals, businesses, and organizations.
(A previous story on Aunt Agatha's can be found here.)
I offer personal congratulations to the Agnews as I was honored to receive the Raven last year. It is an honor I treasure. Previous Raven winners include Molly Weston, The Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, and The Poe House in Baltimore, MD.
Here’s a contest that should attract many mystery readers: Win a trip to Florida to attend a private event with Lisa Unger, left, and Michael Connelly, below.
The event is on a private yacht in Clearwater, Florida, on January 9, 2014.
Think about it.
And it’s January.
And it’s Unger and Connelly.
The event is a book launch of Unger’s next novel In the Blood, which is a continuation of her series set in the idyllic sounding town of The Hollows. This series is quite interesting as Unger, a best-selling author, looks at different residents of this town.
Here's a review of Unger's Darkness, My Old Friend and Heartbroken. And here is a review of Fragile, the first in The Hollows.
Connelly—for those three readers who have never heard of him—is the best-selling author of the Harry Bosch series. His latest novel, The Gods of Guilt, features his Lincoln Lawyer character Mickey Haller and just came out this month.
Here's my review of The Gods of Guilt. And here's the review of The Gods of Guilt that we ran in Mystery Scene magazine.
The contest is co-sponsored by Simon & Schuster.
The contest’s grand prize includes a three-night stay in a hotel and round-trip airfare from any state in the connected 48 states.
The winner will get to share a cocktail with the authors before the book launch begins.
On a yacht.
Ten other winners will receive a signed copy of In the Blood.
Hurry, the contest’s deadline is Dec. 15, 2013. Talk about a great holiday gift.
The Fall (Series 1). Acorn Media. 5 episodes, 2 discs, 306 minutes with bonus behind-the-scenes feature lasting 12 minutes. $39.99.
The face of evil, of a killer, isn’t always obvious. The most terrifying face of evil is the one that looks kind, looks normal, looks exactly like a neighbor. Or, in the case of the gripping series The Fall, looks exactly like a grief counselor to whom one would pour out one’s heart, exposing every vulnerability.
The Fall continues the string of excellent crime dramas that have come out of the United Kingdom in the past decade. A police procedural in the finest sense, The Fall was the highest-rated drama premiere in eight years when it debuted on BBC Two in May, 2013, and is just now making its U.S. debut via Acorn Media. The season has just been renewed for a second season in Great Britain.
The Fall follows the hunt for a serial killer who is targeting successful professional women who are single. From the beginning, the viewer knows that the killer is Paul Spector, icily played by Jamie Dornan (Once Upon a Time, Marie Antoinette). Paul works as a bereavement counselor and is married to a neo-natal nurse with whom he has two small children, a daughter and son who both dote on him.
While the idea of a family man moonlighting as a serial killer isn’t new, The Fall’s tense plots make this seem fresh and original. And as ruthless as Dornan’s performance is, the real revelation here is Gillian Anderson—Dana Scully of The X Files.
Anderson has proved herself to be a versatile actress since The X Files series ended in 2002. She has done several British TV series such as Bleak House and Great Expectations and played the Duchess of Windsor in the miniseries Any Human Heart. Most recently, she has played a psychiatrist in the NBC series Hannibal.
Anderson is flawless as Stella Gibson, a detective superintendent from London’s Metropolitan Police who has come to Belfast to review the investigation. Steely and determined, Stella is clearly the smartest person in the room as she plunges into the investigation. Too often she is pulled into office politics against her will because her intelligence threatens the Belfast detectives.
The Fall follows Paul’s chilling preparations for his next victim and his almost banal family life as Stella tries to figure out the missing link between each of the seemingly random victims.
The Fall relies heavily on the tenets of the psychological thriller.
The seemingly compassionate Paul is always on the verge and we wonder if he will turn his violence and hatred of women on his own family.
Stella is able to filter out all the noise surrounding the investigation and zero in on what is important.
The Fall maintains a sense of realism throughout the five episodes. I am very much looking forward to the second season and more of Anderson’s intense performance.
Photos: The Fall with Gillian Anderson; Jamie Dornan. Photos courtesy Acorn Media
I have long thought that television and film waste a wonderful source of good drama by not tapping more into the crime fiction genre. Look at how long it took Michael’s Connelly’s Harry Bosch series to make it be filmed. (Details here.)
So I am always pleased when I hear that network executives are at least considering crime fiction as a source.
The latest that may make it to the small screen—and I say may because nothing is ever in stone when it comes to TV or film—is a series based on Randy Wayne White’s Doc Ford novels.
CBS has put in development the appropriately named Doc Ford series based on White's series of 20 novels.
Marion “Doc” Ford is a retired NSA agent who is now a mild-mannered marine biologist who lives in a tight-knit marina in Sanibel Island, which is located on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Doc Ford is mild-mannered and unassuming, except, of course, when he is seeking justice for those in need or called back into service to use his very special skills. Of course, Doc Ford is called back into service a lot.
White’s series began with Sanibel Flats in 1990 and includes Night Moves, published last year. Gerolmo (Mississippi Burning, The Bridge) is writing the TV adaptation.
White’s series has the potential to make great TV. The novels include lots of adventure, an interesting hero, and a wide range of supporting characters. (A profile of White ran in Mystery Scene’s Winter 2010 issue, No. 113)
The Sanibel Island and Captiva areas of Florida are just gorgeous—pristine waters, land that hasn’t been overdeveloped, and beautiful beaches. Since Florida has a number of very good actors, the producers should make good use of local talent as did other series filmed here such as Burn Notice, The Glades, Graceland, as well as others. Doc Ford’s adventures center around Florida but also take him other places so there will be good fodder for scenery.
“I’ve worked with Randy for twenty books now, and I’m still constantly surprised by the stories he creates for Doc Ford and Tomlinson and his wonderful new character, Hannah Smith. Getting to read their adventures before anyone else does is one of the tremendous perks of my job!” said Neil S. Nyren, senior vice-president, publisher, and editor in chief at G. P. Putnam's Sons. Nyren’s quote came during a recent email exchange I had with him.
White has been awarded the Conch Republic Prize for Literature and the John D. Macdonald Award for Literary Excellency. His national PBS documentary, The Gift of the Game, which he wrote and narrated, won the 2002 Woods Hole Film Festival Best of Festival award.
A fishing and nature enthusiast, he has also written extensively for National Geographic Adventure, Men’s Journal, Playboy and Men’s Health.
In a press release, White said “The thing I love most to write about is Doc Ford and his friends at Dinkin’s Bay. I was a light tackle fishing guide at Tarpon Bay Marina on Sanibel Island, Florida for 13 years, and the Ford novels afford me the opportunity to revisit a time, and people, about which I care deeply.”
In the same release, White also said why Florida is the perfect setting for his novels. “Florida is an American microcosm that lures the best and the worst sort of people from all of the Americas, not just the U.S. I love the social diversity as much as I adore the varieties of subtropical land and waterscapes."
White continued, "For much of my life here, I’ve lived in an old Cracker house, tin-roofed, with a fireplace for heat, built atop the remnants of a shell pyramid that was constructed more than three thousand years ago by contemporaries of the Maya. Florida is an ancient place, but as modern as the latest South Beach fads in fashion and food. From my acre on the bay I can stand atop a mound, where kings once parlayed with Conquistadors, and watch the Space Shuttle arch toward the moon.”
Photos: Top, Randy Wayne White photo by Wendy Webb; Center, Randy Wayne White on his annual swim across Tampa Bay, a fund-raiser for the Navy SEALS, photo by Bill Hirschman
This time of year, there are myriad lists about the year’s best books. And heaven knows Mystery Scene has one to come. And I have one that is being published across the country. Here’s a link to my personal best of 2013.
But let’s take this time to take a look at the future. Who are the newest authors we should be reading? This list isn’t to take away from our current top mystery writers. We know who they are and they continue to enthrall us with solid stories.
But here are 12 new authors who I consider to be ones to watch for. By new, I am focusing on authors who have three or less novels to their name. And this list is not in any particular order. And after I compiled it, I realized I left off about another dozen authors. If anyone has a favorite, please post in the comments.
(And if you are still looking for holiday gifts for your reader friends, this list also makes a good start.)
Owen Laukkanen: This Canadian author has made the current economic woes his genre niche while creating action-packed stories that also are contemporary cautionary tales. His debut The Professionals set the tone -- a suspenseful and insightful thriller about four out-of-work, newly graduated college friends who become kidnappers. He followed that up with Criminal Enterprise in which a wealthy man, who defines himself by his possessions and career, turns to bank robbery when he is downsized. Laukkanen’s next novel Kill Fee comes out in March. While Laukkanen makes us care about his finely drawn characters, the real heroes of his novels are FBI agent Carla Windermere and Minnesota state cop Kirk Stevens.
Ivy Pochoda: Ivy Pochoda’s novel Visitation Street ranked No. 2 on my best of 2013, a close close second to Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt. Visitation Street is the second novel under the Dennis Lehane imprint. It is a poignant look at the bonds that link a Red Hook neighborhood when a teenage girl disappears following an accident on the water. Pochoda looks at the entire neighborhood, from an immigrant who owns a local convenience store to a teenage boy whose father was murdered outside their apartment. Her first novel was The Art of Disappearing, published in 2009.
Elisabeth Elo: You’ll have to wait until next year for Elisabeth Elo’s debut North of Boston to hit the bookstores. But the wait is worth it. In this novel, Pirio Kasparov’s ability to withstand extreme weather works as a metaphor for survival. The heir to a perfume company and the daughter of Russian immigrants, Pirio maneuvers various strata of Boston society. The brisk plot moves without getting lost among such far-flung subjects as environmental issues, the fish industry and perfume.
Michael Sears: Michael Sears has been able to turn complex financial dealings into thrilling plots that don’t overwhelm the reader with the machinations of the stock market and without dumbing down such shenanigans. Greed, mismanaged money and cheating are
solid foundations for many thrillers—Sears just takes them to another level. As a result he was nominated for just about every mystery fiction award last year. His debut, Black Fridays, introduced Wall Street hotshot Jason Stafford who never started out to be a criminal. A simple accounting error snowballed into a felony when his portfolio lost more than $500 million. “I was the first alumnus from my MBA class to make Managing Director. I was also the first, as far as I know, to go to prison,” says Jason. But Sears delivers more than a financial series. Jason is the father of a very difficult special needs child. Mortal Bonds is Sears’ second novel; his third comes out next summer.
Ingrid Thoft: Ingrid Thoft is off to a great start with Loyalty, her debut about a private detective whose family of high-powered Boston attorneys are as ruthless as any mob family. Identity comes out next June.
Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym for a British journalist who has three other novels under her own name. The Wicket Girls is a stand alone about two girls who are convicted of the death of another child, and the women they became 25 years later. Marwood examines the class system and gossip. Her next novel, slated for U.S. publication next summer, will be called The Killer Next Door. I am not alone in my praise of this novel. Stephen King recently mentioned it as one of his top reads of the year.
Tim O’Mara: Tim O’Mara brings a fresh approach to the academic mystery with his novels about Raymond Donne, a former NYPD detective turned middle-school teacher in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. O’Mara’s debut Sacrifice Fly and his recent Crooked Numbers explore this complex character whose devotion to his students and making their lives better brings him a new start. And he uses his investigative skills even more as a teacher.
Wiley Cash: In his 2012 debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Wiley Cash melded crime fiction with Southern gothic for an emotional story about the power of forgiveness, the strength of family bonds and how religion can be misused to seduce and dominate. A 9-year-old boy, a sheriff and a midwife alternate narrating “A Land More Kind Than Home,” set in Marshall, “a little speck of a town” in western North Carolina. The three are bonded not only by geography but by the evil that slyly yet forcefully slithers into the community. This Dark Road to Mercy comes out in January. In his second novel, Cash focuses on two young sisters forced into foster care until their wayward father who disappeared years before suddenly returns.
Julia Keller: Julia Keller’s two novels, A Killing in the Hills and Bitter River, are insightful looks at a poverty-stricken community in West Virginia whose residents are determined to make a better life.
Tricia Fields: Tricia Fields debuted as the 2010 Tony Hillerman Prize winner with The Territory, an action-packed yet personal story about the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels in a small Texas town. Chief of Police Josie Gray is a fully realized character who fights the good fight against all odds. Fields followed up with Scratchgravel Road. Her third novel Wrecked comes out in March 2014.
Patrick Lee: Patrick Lee has three best-selling paperback originals to his name. But his hardcover debut Runner with its mix of sci-fi, Tom Clancy and adventure should put him over the top. You’ll have to wait until April to see what all the fuss is about.
Amanda Kyle Williams: Amanda Kyle Williams hit the ground running with The Stranger You Seek, a character-rich tale of self-discovery about Keye Street, a Chinese-American private detective who knows that her flaws are part of her persona. Keye knows little about her Asian heritage, but all about the South because she was adopted at age five by a white Georgia family. She followed The Stranger You Seek with The Stranger in the Room. Her third novel Don’t Talk to Strangers is due out in July 2014.
(Michael Sears and Amanda Kyle Williams are among the authors who will be at Sleuthfest 2014. Details here.)
Sturges’ “gift” came during Connelly’s appearance this past Sunday on CBS' Face the Nation during which four authors talked about books with Bob Schieffer.
Each author was asked to name one of the best books they had read this past year.
Connelly mentioned sturges’ series that is called “the shortcut man.”
The “hero” of this series is Dick Henry, who has been called the shortcut man because he can quickly get to the heart of a problem. He’s not a detective or a cop, just a guy who does jobs for others.
Sturges has three novels in his series—Shortcut Man, Tribulations of the Shortcut Man, and Angel’s Gate.
Sturges, the son of writer-director Preston Sturges, laces his hard-boiled series with gallows humor.
Connelly, of course, is the author of the Harry Bosch series. Connelly’s latest novel The Gods of Guilt returns to his Lincoln Lawyer character Mickey Haller. (The Gods of Guilt is my pick for best crime fiction of the year.)
Marcia Clark’s series about Rachel Knight, a Deputy District Attorney in the Special Trials Unit of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, may be the next series on TNT.
The cable network has given the OK to the pilot Guilt by Association. The script is being co-written by Clark and Nashville showrunner Dee Johnson. Nelson McCormick (The Closer; Rizzoli & Isles) will direct the Guilt by Association pilot and also act as executive producer.
One of the hallmarks of Clark’s series is the friendship between Rachel and LAPD detective Bailey Keller and prosecutor Toni LaCollette.
The three women have a solid friendship that is based on respect and affection. This would fit in very well with TNT’s series Rizzoli & Isles, based on the novels by Tess Gerritsen.
A couple of years ago, TNT had a string of terrific made for TV films based on crime fiction. Novels by Lisa Gardner, Richard North Patterson, and Mary and Carol Higgins Clark made quite credible movies.
Would love to see TNT explore more crime fiction for future projects. I have lots of suggestions, TNT executives.
How a life of literary crime cured a broken heart and a restless mind.
Photo credit Philip Dattilo (2008)
I grew up in a small city called Rome in upstate New York, and when I was 18 I went away to college—to the Rochester Institute of Technology. My plan was to study graphic design.
I dropped out after eight weeks.
I want to say the reasons were complicated, but that’s not true. There was a girl involved, a girl I was in love with who didn’t love me. That was part of it. The other part was that I had figured out, during those eight weeks, that I wasn’t ready for college and didn’t want to be a graphic designer.
Which left me at home, living with my parents again. It would be fair to say that I was depressed, that I felt like a failure, and that I didn’t know what I was going to do.
The thing I remember about that time is that I read a lot of books.
I’d always been a reader, mostly science fiction and fantasy. Robert Heinlein and J.R.R. Tolkien were my favorites. But in those months after I dropped out of college I discovered crime novels. The first one was Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. I picked it up off a rack of paperbacks in a department store and I still have it. I love that book. It’s about a murdered call girl and a machete-wielding killer, but it’s also about Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic private detective struggling to find redemption, and about the unlikely friendship that develops between Scudder and the man who hires him, a pimp named Chance.
It turned out to be just what I needed. When I finished it, I went looking for more books by Lawrence Block. I found them in a used bookstore in town. I found Raymond Chandler there too, and Gregory Mcdonald and Agatha Christie and Sue Grafton and Rex Stout.
Eventually I got back on track. I took another stab at college, at Colgate University, and I stuck with it. I’m not saying that reading is magic, or that crime novels cured me and carried me through a dark time in my life. Maybe I would have gotten through anyway. Maybe therapy or antidepressants would have served me better. But I didn’t have those things. I had books, and they helped me take my mind off my problems, the way they always do. And that was enough.
What the hell—I am saying it. Reading is magic.
Harry Dolan is the author of the mystery/suspense novels including Bad Things Happen (2009), Very Bad Men (2011), and The Last Dead Girl (2014). A native of Rome, New York, he now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews January 2014 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.
Most authors who write series concentrate on one or two recurring characters to drive the story. Kinsey Millhone, Harry Bosch, V.I. Warshawski, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan, Sookie Stackhouse—each is as well known to readers as are the authors who created them.
(Five points each if you can name in one quick breath the corresponding authors; no, there is no prize, just a fun exercise.)
Lisa Unger has taken a different route with three of her last novels. Instead of focusing on a person, Unger uses the fictional town The Hollows as the driving force while concentrating on different residents each time out.
The only recurring characters in Unger’s series have been Jones Cooper, a detective, and his psychologist wife, Maggie, both of whom were the focus of Fragile, her first Hollows novel. But these characters are now minor in the series, vital, yes, but only supporting.
Unger’s newest novel In the Blood, which just came out this week, belongs to Lana Granger, a troubled young college student who is trying to hide a past that includes her father being on death row for the murder of her mother and her own violent tendencies.
The Hollows is a charming sounding town, located about 100 miles from New York City, giving it both an urban and a rural feel. Each time Unger visits The Hollows, we learn more about this place and how it affects its residents. Who knew there was a college in The Hollows, as we find out with In the Blood?
I have been trying to think of other authors who have used a town as the recurring series character and the only one I can remember is the late Marilyn Wallace, who wrote a series during the late 1980s and 1990s set in Taconic Hills (“a tiny hamlet halfway between the Hudson River and New England”).
And Tana French uses a police squad, which is in its own way like a town, in her Irish mysteries.
Perhaps more knowledgeable readers than I will remember a series in which the town was the recurring characters.
In James’ latest, Detective Superintendent Roy Grace investigates the brutal murder of centenarian Aileen McWhirter, tortured and killed by thugs even as they looted her home of over £10 million of antiques and other works of art. Time is of the essence, since most of the pieces probably had buyers in advance of the theft, and because the woman's brother, a 95-year-old antiques dealer with unlimited resources (legitimate and illegitimate) named Gavin Daly, has launched his own investigation, desperate to regain a pocket watch he and his sister inherited from their father over nine decades before. Needless to say, Daly’s behind the scenes machinations complicate an already difficult case for Grace.
Dead Man's Time is a top-notch police procedural, delving deeply into the details of Grace's police work, and into the nefarious activities of the criminals involved. As this is the ninth book in the series (the word "dead" figures prominently in all the titles), James is very comfortable with his milieu and his characters, using that intimacy to evoke much mirth, and, also, much concern for the well-being of the continuing cast. Indeed, James takes some familiarity with prior installments in the series for granted; that doesn't take away from the current book as a stand-alone effort, it only suggests that readers might glean even more enjoyment from devouring it if they have sampled other entries in the series, as the characters continue to evolve, changed in significant ways by the events depicted in the books.
In some of the best crime fiction, the detectives work the case as the case works the detectives, forcing them to evaluate their sense of justice, their moral compass and each other.
That approach is the cornerstore of True Detective, the engrossing new HBO series that debuts tonight at 9 p.m. EST/PT.
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) are partners in Louisiana’s Criminal Investigation Division.
We first meet them in 2012 when both are being interviewed about a case involving the ritualistic occult murder of a woman that they handled in 1995.
It became one of those cases that changed their lives and forced them down a path of life from which they have never recovered.
True Detective alternates between the interview in 2012 to the case in 1995 with flashbacks to 2002 when Cohle left the squad.
“You don’t pick your parents and you don’t pick your partners,” says detective Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the investigators who are interviewing him at the beginning of True Detective. At first glance, Hart doesn’t look much different than he did back in 1995—a bit more grizzled, a bit more cynical—but he is clean shaven, looks presentable in a suit and is sober.
The same can’t be said for his former partner. In 1995, Cohle was clean-shaven, dressed neatly and, despite personal tragedies and a bleak attitude, had not seemed to completely give up on life. The 2012 Cohle seems unable to care about anything, least of all himself. His beard and long hair are not a fashion statement but because he can’t muster the energy to shave, or even wear clean clothes. He drinks heavily throughout the interview because the investigators are interrupting the hours he has set aside each day to drink, and he will not give up this time.
Cohle and Hart were never friends. Cohle’s propensity for his nihilistic monologues on religion, life, and families irritated Hart when they were partners. Married with children, Hart doesn’t trust the fact that Cohle is single and lives in a Spartan apartment.
The eight-episode True Detective takes the partners through the backroads of Louisiana as the camera lovingly follows the bleak beauty of swamps, abandoned buildings, burnt-out churches and blue-collar towns around the Atchafalaya basin.
The murder of this young woman spirals both Cohle and Hart into cycles of obsession and violence. Neither is prepared for how the case will affect each.
True Detective resists the cliches of the televised police procedural as it draws us into each man’s life. Credit goes to creator Nic Pizzolatto, the author of the novel Galveston, an Edgar finalist for best first novel in 2010, and director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) who show the humanity of each detective, exploring what made these already damaged men and how the case changed them. Both Pizzolatto and Fukunaga keep the onscreen violence to a minimum but make the threat of violence high, lurking just below the surface ready to erupt at any moment.
But credit also must go to McConaughey and Harrelson, both of whom dial down their usual onscreen personalities to create an intriguing ensemble. I have had a lot more respect for McConaughey since he appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s novel. In True Detective, McConaughey morphs into a credible, haunted detective whose intelligence is his biggest asset, and liability. He’s no longer a movie star famous for taking off his shirt or hawking cologne, but a man who has lost everything. Harrelson is frightening as a cop too tightly coiled. Their strong performances make True Detective even more compelling.
Michelle Monaghan (Gone Baby Gone) stars as Hart’s wife, Maggie, who wants to keep her family together but knows she may not succeed.
True Detective unfolds over eight episodes. In an interview, Pizzolatto said he is planning each season to be a self-contained series with a definite ending and a different cast.
That’s an interesting idea but McConaughey and Harrelson are so good in True Detective that they would be welcomed back.
True Detective airs at 9 p.m. (EST/Pt) Sundays on HBO. Frequent encores will run each week.
Photo: Matthew McConaughey, left, and Woody Harrelson in True Detective. Photo courtesy HBO
I had to miss the launch of the fifth season of the FX series Justified, but you can be sure that I have since caught up and am again riveted to the adventures of Raylan Givens (played by Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and the rest of the Kentucky lawmen and outlaws.
It’s going to be another great season.
But what I missed by not seeing Justified in real time was the brief tribute to the late novelist Elmore Leonard, whose short story, "Fire in the Hole," inspired the series.
The 90-second tribute was part of a longer piece that will eventually be part of the Season 5 DVD and include interviews with cast members and others who worked with Leonard, plus readings from his novels.
Justified is so very much in keeping with Leonard’s novels—stories with crisp dialogue, a blurring between the good guys and bad guys and a sense that these are real people that we are ease dropping on.
Leonard had many fans among those who worked on Justified, including series creator Graham Yost. The Detroit Free Press wrote last week that Yost made “WWED (What Would Elmore Do) the guidepost for the writers."
In the same interview, the newspaper quoted Yost, “There's an old saw that you should never meet your heroes, and that applies, but not in Elmore's case. He was just fun to hang out with and had a great attitude about life and work and writing,” said Yost, adding in the same newspaper article that this year, “There's a certain degree that there's a switchover from ‘We hope Elmore likes this episode’ to ‘This is in memory of Elmore.’ We hope that... we're, in his memory, doing the best we can to make him happy.”
In the same article, the Free Press interviewed Olyphant: “What I was always aware of was the tone, the humor, the ease with which he told stories or made jokes without acknowledging them. He just had the timing. He was not unlike his books.”
Leonard, who died Aug. 20, 2013, at age 87, left behind a legacy of more than 45 novels that appealed to readers of many generations.
When a director and screenwriter respected his novels, Leonard’s work translated well to the movie screen, including Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch), Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Hombre, and Joe Kidd.
But for many of us, Leonard’s novels were what we most gravitated toward.
Now we have a year in which we will not have a novel by the master. It just doesn’t seem justified.
Justified airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on the FX Channel with frequent encores.
Photos: Top, Elmore Leonard; center, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant).