Oline H. Cogdill
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.

Michael Connelly’s latest novel, The Gods of Guilt, which goes on sale Dec. 2, 2013, he uses a name that is familiar to many people who live in South Florida. (Connelly is pictured at left.)

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, 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 VietsFixing 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.)

Oline Cogdill
Each year, the Key West Literary Seminar focuses on a different aspect of literature and, finally, 2014 is crime fiction’s time. This highly respected seminar calls its 32nd annual gathering “The Dark Side” as it explores the mystery, crime and thriller genres with some of the top authors.

The seminar is divided into parts with different authors at each session. Chapter One will be Jan. 9-12, 2014, and the Final Chapter is Jan. 16-19, 2014. The seminars are held at the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval Street, Key West.

And I know first-hand that Key West in January is not a bad place to be. Balmy breezes, outdoor dining and just a slight, often very slight, nip in the air.

But if you are going, hurry up as registration for the Key West Literary Seminar fills up quickly. Chapter One is now accepting a waitlist.

The cost includes all talks and panels, beginning Thursday evening and concluding Sunday around noon. Evening receptions and meals are also included.

January also is a prime tourist season for Key West so it’s important to book a room early whether at one of the many hotels or the myriad charming bed and breakfasts or small inn that dot the island.

And if you go, don’t miss the sunset, which is a major event in Key West.

Seriously. It’s a mini festival on the docks when the sun goes down.
Sara Paretsky
, top photo, is the key note speaker for Chapter One while Elizabeth George, second photo, does the honors for the Final Chapter.

Here are some of the authors who are scheduled.

Chapter One: Megan Abbott, Gillian Flynn, Carl Hiassen, James W. Hall, Laura Lippman, John Katzenbach, Val McDermid, Scott Turow, Alexander McCall Smith, John Sanford, among others.

The Final Chapter will include Alafair Burke, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Lisa Unger, Thomas H. Cook, Tess Gerritsen, Sara Gran, William Kent Krueger, right, Michael Koryta, among others.

Photos: From top: Sara Paretsky, Elizabeth George.William Kent Krueger

Oline Cogdill

The names that authors choose for their novels can reveal a personality trait and make a difference to the plot.

Dick and Sally, Spot and Mew Mew may have worked for those first readers we had years ago, but not for crime fiction.

Michael Connelly’s choice of Harry Bosch for his lead character suggests a man forever in turmoil. Jack Reacher illustrates a man forever out of reach of the mainstream as Lee Child proves time and again. V.I. Warshawski with her Italian-Polish background is a tribute to immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago as Sara Paretsky often shows.

That attention to names and what they can mean were problems that faced Hank Phillippi Ryan, left, when she was writing The Other Woman, the first of her Jane Ryland novels.

She had the plot worked out and the supporting characters named. But she couldn’t come up with the last name for her heroine. She had Jane, but what would be Jane's last name?

Ryan is a proven talent and she knew that the name of her heroine would stay with her for a long time.

It was getting time to send in her manuscript and Ryan was on a train, still contemplating what to call her character. Ryan, in frustration, told herself that the next name she saw outside her window would be the name of her character.

And the next name that came up on a billboard was Ryland Industries.

And thus was born Jane Ryland, the former TV reporter turned newspaper journalist in Ryan’s new series.

Jane Ryland—don’t forget that name—is the heroine of The Other Woman and Ryan’s latest novel, The Wrong Girl.

Ryland may have just been words on a billboard but the name conjures a kind of sturdiness, an attention to good business practices and a sense of reliability. And Jane Ryland, investigative reporter certainly is that.

I had never heard the story of how Jane’s name came to be until Ryan was the guest at the recent book club sponsored by WXEL, the PBS station in South Florida. This book club actually has the authors come to discuss their works with the participants.

The sessions are filmed and are put on YouTube.

You can watch Ryan’s session here.

(I will be the guest talking about historical mysteries on Nov. 21, 2013, so come on down. Details here.)

Ryan told this story when the moderator, Joanne Sinchuck of Murder on the Beach, asked her was she aware that Ryan and Ryland sounded so similar. Ryan said that other readers had commented on that, too.

Ryan also mentioned that the lawyer in Defending Jacob by William Landay is based on her husband, Jonathan Shapiro, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney.

And that is why I sometimes go to book events, to hear these little gems.


Oline Cogdill

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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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

Oline Cogdill
This is what happens when you start cleaning out a bookcase—you take a trip down memory lane.

I was recently cleaning out some old books, ones I had enjoyed but time to make room for the new ones I love. (For the record, I kept more than I will give away.)

That’s when I came across Everybody Smokes in Hell by John Ridley, left, which I had given raved about to in 1998.

1998…my goodness that was a lifetime ago.

I momentarily wondered what happened to John Ridley and then I remembered: A lot has happened.

Ridley wrote seven novels from 1997 through 2006, including Stray Dogs, Love Is a Racket and What Fire Cannot Burn. These were edgy novels about people on the margins of society.

But his novels have given way to his real love—screenwriting.
You may have heard of his latest screenwriting project—12 Years a Slave. It is only the most talked about film of the year, a sure-fire Oscar nominee for best film, actor, actress, screenplay and just about every award imaginable.

Ridley has always wrote screenplays. He turned his novel Stray Dogs into the 1997 Oliver Stone-directed film U Turn. Ridley's directorial debut, Cold Around the Heart, won him the best director award at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York.

He also scripted and co-produced the movie Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube.

He also wrote for the TV series Third Watch and Barbershop.

He also is a playwright, making his debut with Ten Thousand Years, and has been a commentator for National Public Radio.

His next screen project is All Is By My Side, a drama based on Jimi Hendrix's pre-fame years. He directed the film and wrote the screenplay and was working on 12 Years a Slave and All Is By My Side.

In my review of Everybody Smokes in Hell, I said “Paris Scott -- failed actor, writer, musician -- is all too aware that he's already another Los Angeles failure. He knows it every time he thinks about his former girlfriend, calls his parents for money or goes to work at a convenience store.

“Paris is a loser—‘the toll the city of his dreams had taken on him was just now reaching critical mass.’ He's not a bad guy, but he's no angel and he's the closest thing Everybody Smokes in Hell has to a hero. Through a series of coincidences and mistakes, Paris may finally have found his fortune. He has the last master tape of a "suicided" rock star and, although he doesn't know it, a small fortune in stolen drugs.

“In Everybody Smokes in Hell, author John Ridley merges an old-fashioned caper with a dark screwball comedy for a thriller about greed, power and respect. Set against the backdrop of those meccas of materialism, Hollywood and Las Vegas, Everybody Smokes in Hell continues Ridley's provocative look at the seamy side of life.

Everybody Smokes in Hell is a Pulp Fiction sort of ride that echoes the kind of characters relished by readers of novels by Jim Thompson, James M. Cain and Elmore Leonard.”

Mystery fiction’s loss is the movie goers’ gain. And by the way, Everybody Smokes in Hell is still on my bookshelf.

Photos: Top, John Ridley; Center, Michael Fassbender, left, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave. Photos courtesy Fox Searchlight