Oline Cogdill

When I was a kid, I wanted to be many things when I grew up. And one of those was being an Egyptologist.

Now keep in mind, I had no idea what exactly an Egyptologist did and this goal, no doubt, came about because of many really bad movies in which crypts and mummies unleashed all sorts of havoc.

That career goal lasted only a little while and was folded into many other occupations that my childhood brain concocted.

But my interest in Egyptology has never stopped. Egypt was full of such interesting events—a boy who is named King Tut, the feral Cleopatra who is a mere teen when she began her rule, the legend that the Napoleon’s soldiers may have used the Great Sphinx of Giza for target practice.

I use that rather flippant antidote to pay homage to Elizabeth Peters aka Barbara Mertz who died last week, on Aug. 8 at age 85.

There have been many tributes and remembrances of Mertz on Facebook, on the various obituary sites and more. I wanted to add one for Mystery Scene but wasn’t sure how to approach it.

Until I remembered how personal each of our relationships is with an author. Each of us can identify with a plot, a character or even a setting because of how it affects each of us as individuals.

For me, and I suspect other fans, the novels written as Elizabeth Peters about daring Victorian archaeologist Amelia Peabody were what touched me.

She wrote some 19 novels about Amelia and her family that took us into the “Golden Age” of Egyptology with excavations the backdrop for the plots. I don’t pretend to have read more than half of these wonderful tales.

These novels were about possibilities. Of the idea that anything could be uncovered, linking our past with our future.

The novels began with Crocodile on the Sandbank, published in 1975, and took us into the crypts, the pyramids, the culture, the desert of Egypt. The novels start in the 1880s when Amelia decided to see the world as a wealthy feminist spinster.

Along the way she would acquire a loving husband and children. Amelia would be witness to some of the most astounding discoveries, including Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, as fictionalized in Tomb of the Golden Bird.

Her last novel was A River in the Sky, published in 2010.

For the pen name Elizabeth Peters, Mertz combined the names of daughter and son.

Mertz also was a true expert on Egypt, receiving her Ph.D. in the subject at age 23.

And she was prolific, writing under the name of Mertz, Peters and Barbara Michaels. She was named Grand Master at the inaugural Anthony Awards in 1986 and Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America at the Edgar Awards in 1998.

One of the best obituaries of Mertz ran in the Washington Post.

But I also want to mention a couple of other tributes.

On the blog, Dean James, who also writes as Miranda James, mentions that with Elizabeth Peters’ novels, “I could escape whatever was going on in my life at the time, and Barbara and her books never failed me. They always pulled me in and gave me respite when I needed it. I never needed it more than when my father died in 1990. That last night in the hospital, awaiting the inevitable, I took with me Crocodile on the Sandbank. I had already read it two or three times but I knew it was what I needed. That night, and through the days that followed, I reread my favorite Elizabeth Peters books. They gave me solace when nothing -- and no one else -- could.”

Also on the femmesfatales blog, Charlaine Harris thinks about the late author soon after reading an essay about America’s rape culture: “I imagined Barbara’s comments about the prevalence of rape culture, about how simply appalling it is that young men thought grabbing women up from behind and carrying them away was a harmless prank. . . . Barbara was never afraid to speak out. She was never hesitant about expressing her opinion. She was never one to back out of a healthy argument. I don’t pretend I was a close friend, but I was a friendly acquaintance . . . and I knew that about Barbara, even on our slim experience of each other. She was a pioneer, and a great example.”

And Elizabeth Foxwell offered this “Barbara's storming of considerable bastions in her life and career has benefited women from many walks of life as well as mystery readers and writers. When she was a graduate student in Egyptology at the University of Chicago, she was asked, more than once, why she was taking the place of a man, and why was she there anyway, because she was ‘just going to get married.’ . . . Well into her seventies, Barbara was descending into Egyptian tombs and maintaining a schedule that would make someone a quarter of her age relapse onto a Victorian fainting couch.”

Rest in peace, Barbara Mertz and Elizabeth Peters, and thank you for all the wonderful stories you gave us through the years.

Oline Cogdill

The mystery genre—and readers—embrace myriad voices. We can have 10 different authors writing about Los Angeles or New York City or Chicago and each will have a different take on that city.

That also applies to authors writing about Asia.

Timothy Hallinan, at left, has lived, on and off, in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. His series include five novels about rough-travel writer Philip ("Poke") Rafferty, including The Fear Artist and The Queen of Patpong, and three comic capers about burglar-detective Junior Bender, including Little Elvises, Crashed, and The Fame Thief. He also edited Shaken, a collection of short stories with proceeds going to earthquake relief in Japan.

Lisa Brackmann’s debut novel Rock Paper Tiger set on the fringes of the Chinese art world, made several “Best of 2010″ lists. Brackmann, at right, followed that with Getaway, which won the Los Angeles Book Festival Grand Prize and was nominated for the T. Jefferson Parker SCIBA award. Her latest is Hour of the Rat.

Hallinan recently interviewed Brackmann about her travels and stint living in China and how those experiences influenced Hour of the Rat.

Hallinan: How and why did you choose China as the setting and how did Ellie McEnroe, a very individualistic heroine, come to you?

Brackmann: I’d already written a fair amount of stuff, but to be honest it was mostly pretty weird. I finally told myself I had to write something that someone might actually want to buy. I decided to draw on my background living in contemporary China. I hadn’t seen modern China as a setting in much western fiction, and I thought it would be an awesome location for a suspense novel. Plus, I just wanted to share a little something of the country that I found so endlessly fascinating.

As for Ellie, another essential element in my novels is some issue, or issues, that I’m passionate about. At the time I wrote Rock Paper Tiger that was the Iraq War and the larger War on Terror.

So, I came up with Ellie McEnroe. Brought up by a single mother, a “good Christian girl” who joined the National Guard because she needed money for a potential college education and/or health insurance and finds herself in the middle of a war she’d never intended to fight. I saw Ellie as a person who hadn’t had a lot of formal education but who is smart, and has a strong sense of right and wrong. She’s always struggling with not wanted to get involved but her now deeply rooted need for justice, and anger at injustice, tends to put her in the middle of messes.

Hallinan: In Rock Paper Tiger more than Hour of the Rat, the present-day Chinese art scene is an important element. What is it about it that most fascinates you?

I’d briefly been an art major at UCSD, which is known for its conceptual art orientation, and I have a very dear friend who was deeply involved in the contemporary art scene and who was a gallery director in Los Angeles. So I got to sort of eavesdrop on that world a lot. My first time in China coincided with the Democracy Wall movement, and that I actually saw the groundbreaking Star Star Exhibit there—very briefly, and I had no real idea what it meant. After I returned to the U.S., I followed stories about China, particularly about the rapidly developing contemporary art scene there. I was fascinated by the combination of a repressive government and performance art and other kinds of art with clear political subtexts. In recent years, the Chinese contemporary art market has boomed, with works by Chinese artists selling for a lot of money. The political content has remained in many cases, with various degrees of interference from the authorities. This juxtaposition fascinated me.

Hallinan: How would you describe Ellie?

Brackmann: She definitely knows all the best places to get good, cheap dumplings and she can steer you toward interesting art openings and underground parties. She’s also a good person to have around if you’re traveling in China—she knows all the ins and outs. However, if she invites you out for a late night bar crawl, or tells you that she heard this place is “interesting,” but there’s “absolutely nothing to worry about” —I’d maybe think twice. She doesn’t mean to get into trouble. She’d tell you that the last thing she wants is trouble. But she’s kind of a trouble magnet.

Ellie is a person who covers up a great deal of sensitivity and moral outrage with snark and a hard shell. She’s smart and observant. And yes, she does swear a lot. Part of that “hard shell covering up a sensitive core,” and also, true to her experiences as an accidental soldier and war vet.

She’s also pretty funny. I think these books could get a little didactic without a good dose of humor, and Ellie definitely has a well-developed sense of the absurd. Even in the middle of great outrage she tends to find the humor and absurdity.

Hallinan: Tell us a little about how the plots arrive

Brackmann: The key is looking for connections between seemingly disparate things. I am way more a pantser than a plotter—a lot of the story happens when central character runs into that chainsaw (usually not literally, because that could get messy), though generally I have a few emotional high points and major incidents that I’m aiming to get to. Creating suspense can be a matter of both narrative trickery and creating tension throughout. Tension doesn’t have to mean action on every page—instead, I think of it a pulling that narrative thread tight as I can and, I hope, pulling my reader along with it.

Hallinan: Tell us about the emotional arc of your first year as a published novelist

Brackmann: To be honest, I really didn’t expect much to happen with the book. When things actually started going well, it took me by surprise. The first time it really sunk in was when I went to Murder by the Book, in Houston, for my first real book event. I was on a panel with Victor Gischler and Dwayne Swierczynski; I hadn’t slept due to the crazed red-eye I flew in on, and we just had a really great time. Later, the store owners, McKenna Jordan and David Thompson, took us all out to dinner, and I was sitting there with these great people, and it suddenly occurred to me, “Oh, this is what I do now. I’m an author.” It felt really good.

Hallinan: When you wrote Rock Paper Tiger, were you thinking that Ellie might wind up the central character in a series?

Brackmann: I had no intention of making Ellie a series character. Rock Paper Tiger was this kind of weird book, with a lot of emotional intensity in the writing, a lot of issues I was grappling with, and when I wrote “End,” I’d said the things that I wanted to say.

That said, after taking a break from Ellie and her world, I started thinking, Hmmm, maybe there are still more stories to tell. I’d had to cut a lot of backstory about Ellie’s mother from Rock Paper Tiger, for example. I was interested in exploring how Ellie might have grown from the last book—how she changed from facing some of her demons, and if not defeating them, at least enduring them. I also felt that I’d barely scratched the complexity that is modern China. I particularly wanted to deal with environmental issues, which I’m passionate about, and which are central in the contradictions and challenges that today’s China faces.

Hallinan: Your second series about an American woman named Michelle who tangles with the drug cartels in Puerto Vallarta was launched last year with Getaway. How is Michelle different from Ellie?”

Brackmann: Michelle is older than Ellie, fortyish, and her younger days weren’t full of the kinds of traumas and challenges that Ellie faced. Instead she went through life taking the path of least resistance, seeking a comfortable lifestyle. Which to me is pretty realistic—it’s what most of us do. I certainly have at many points in my life.

She gets into a situation in Mexico where she’s completely in over her head and things go terribly wrong and she has to adjust to an entirely new reality. Although Michelle may be a little naïve at first and inexperienced, she’s pretty tough and resilient. Like Ellie, Michelle’s a sharp observer. Unlike Ellie, she has more of a talent for fitting in, or seeming to.

Hallinan: What is it about Asia that holds you?

Brackmann: I think a lot of it has to do with my living in China at a young age, shortly after the Cultural Revolution. My personality was still pretty fluid, and all of a sudden, was blasted to bits by this series of intense experiences in a culture that was completely alien from the one I’d been brought up in. The whole experience completely altered the course of my life, in so many ways that I can’t even imagine who I would have been if I hadn’t gone.

Then, going back, for all of the tremendous changes in China, for all the negative aspects of my initial experience there—living in a police state among a population traumatized by what was essentially a low level civil war—there was something about it that felt like home. I’ve said before that going back to China felt like excavating my own past, helping me to understand who I was and how I got there. I think that’s true. I think that a part of me will always be in China, and that China will always be “home” to me – maybe not my only home, or the place where I want to live. But I’ll always remember that first time, hanging out with a trio of college students who were struggling with the restrictions that governed their lives, and one of them said to me, “Remember us. Tell others about our lives, what it’s like for us here.”

I’m trying.

Oline Cogdill

Judging from the previews, the upcoming movie Paranoia, scheduled to open on Aug. 16, looks to be a winner.

Of course, the real proof will be in the film itself; too often interesting previews don’t translate into a good movie.

But I have hope. You can judge for yourself: Here is a link to the preview.

The film is based on Joseph Finder’s fifth novel, which revolved around industrial espionage and high-tech companies.

In a review, I called Finder’s 2004 novel “an exciting, breathless thriller that doesn’t slow down until the author has nailed that last, surprising twist.”

The film will star Liam Hemsworth (The Hunger Games) as Adam Cassidy, a 26-year-old underachiever whose greatest talent seems to be “winning over” people.

Finder turned Adam into a bona fide hero for whom you’ll find yourself not only cheering, but willing to spend more time in his world. Adam is forced by his corrupt boss, Nick Wyatt, to spy on Trion, owned by the man’s former mentor, to secure a multi-billion dollar advantage.

In his novel, Finder kept the energy high and the situations plausible.

In my review, I said “James Bond’s adventures almost pale next to the industrial espionage that permeates the halls of Wyatt and Trion and the executive with a ‘black belt in corporate politics.’ The author creates a balance between the ‘high-testosterone shop’ at Wyatt and the seemingly calmer atmosphere at Trion. But Finder doesn’t let the reader relax – just as much deception exists at Trion. And the threat of violence against Adam, his father and his oldest friend is quite real. Just when Paranoia seems to be on a predictable path, Finder pulls a twist that is the perfect capper. . . Finder . . . knows how to [deliver] a superior contemporary thriller that will resonate with anyone who has seen corporate politics at its worse.”

Gary Oldman will star as Nicholas Wyatt and his rival, Jock Goddard, will be played by Harrison Ford. Richard Dreyfuss plays Adam’s father.

As yet, Finder hasn’t seen the movie, only the trailer, “which looks great—but I’m optimistic,” he said.

“The casting is terrific—Harrison Ford is perfect for Jock Goddard, Gary Oldman is one of the greatest actors alive, and Liam Hemsworth is going to be a real star. I've seen Liam shoot several scenes, and he really has the chops to carry the lead,” added Finder in an email to me.

Paranoia isn’t the first novel by Finder to make it to the screen. His novel High Crimes was the basis for the Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd movie.

And if the film doesn’t live up to its potential? Finder isn’t worried. “James M. Cain was asked how he felt about what Hollywood "did" to one of his books—The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, I forget. And he replied, ‘They haven't done anything to my book. It's right there on the shelf. They paid me and that's the end of it.’ That's pretty much how I feel. If the movie's good, it's like a terrific billboard for the book, and if it's not so good, the book's always there. Either way I'm happy,” Finder added.

But don’t expect to see Finder onscreen along the lines of Lee Child’s cameo in Jack Reacher. “No cameo in this one. The producers didn't invite offer me one this time, unfortunately,” Finder said.

Photos: Top, Gary Oldman, Liam Hemsworth, Harrison Ford in Paranoia. Bottom, Liam Hemsworth
Photos courtesy Relativity Media

Oline Cogdill

A Time to Kill
, the first stage adaptation of a John Grisham novel, is scheduled to begin previews on Sept. 28 at New York City’s John Golden Theatre. The play is scheduled to officially open Oct. 20. (Grisham is at left.)

Tony winner Rupert Holmes—a mystery writer himself—has adapted Grisham’s novel for the stage. The play had its world premiere in May 2011 at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.

Ethan McSweeny, who directed the Arena Stage version, has been tapped to direct the Broadway play. The cast will be headed by Fred Dalton Thompson, John Douglas Thompson and Sebastian Arcelus, who also starred in the Arena Stage mounting. Fred Dalton Thompson, who played District Attorney Arthur Branch for five seasons on Law & Order, will be making his Broadway debut in A Time to Kill.

Information on the Broadway production will be updated on

A Time to Kill
, Grisham’s first novel, took the courtroom drama to a new level as it explored racism and legal ethics.

Idealistic lawyer Jack Brigance agrees to defend Carl Lee Hailey, an African American, for murdering the white man who raped his daughter. The case divides the small Mississippi town and pits the young lawyer against the politically connected district attorney.

The prolific Holmes—a playwright, songwriter, and novelist—always brings his A game to any project. (Holmes is photo is at right.) He won an Edgar for best play twice—in 1991 for Accomplice and in 1986 for The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Holmes earned the 2007 Drama Desk Award for the book of the Broadway musical Curtains, a tribute to murder mystery plots. Holmes’ mystery fiction includes the novel Swing. Mystery Scene's profile on Holmes ran in the Winter 2010 issue, No. 113. It's an excellent profile by Bill Hirschman, a writer I'd am quite fond of. (OK, he's my husband.)

A Time to Kill’s 1997 film version starred Samuel L. Jackson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Spacey.

PHOTOS: John Grisham, top; Rupert Holmes, bottom.

Oline Cogdill

Maigret: Complete Collection. Acorn Media. 12 episodes, 4 discs, 645 minutes. DVD, $59.99

The old-style detective never goes out of style.

Contemporary detectives may have an arsenal of gadgets, electronics and social media at their disposal, but their methods, in the end, are the same.

Cell phones batteries run down; iPads are bulky to carry and everyone lies on social media.

But good old instincts, interrogations and face-to-face investigations still work.

Take Maigret, for example.

The French detective Jules Maigret appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories written by Belgium author Georges Simenon. The Maigret oeuvre was published between 1931 and 1972 and the plots and characters are as much in style today as they were when they first came out.

The novels remain popular and Penguin Books has been reprinting these classics since 2006.

And there is the highly entertaining Maigret series starring Michael Gambon (Harry Potter, The Singing Detective) as the commissioner of the Paris “Brigade Criminelle.”

Maigret: Complete Collection with Gambon has now been released on DVD by Acorn Media.

The new boxed set features the 12 episodes that were shown on PBS in 1992 as well as an eight-page booklet with essays about Simenon, the character Maigret and the series.

Gambon gives a subtle yet forceful performance as the pipe-smoking detective whose eye for details never fails him.

In many ways, Gambon gives the same type of performance he did as Hogwarts Headmaster Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels. Both Maigret and Dumbledore are wise, patient, intelligent and given to wearing a uniform; in Maigret’s case it’s his fedora while Dumbledore has his robes.

A hallmark of the Maigret collection is the variety of the type of cases that the detective investigates.

In “The Patience of Maigret,” the detective investigates the murder of a suspect the detective has tried for seven years to prove was the head of a prolific jewelry theft ring.

Why did the murdered wife of a wealthy American have a gun in her purse in “Maigret and the Hotel Majestic”?

A burglar claims he saw a dead woman when he broke into a doctor’s home in “Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife;” but where is she?

You’ll also spot appearances throughout the collection.

For example, “Maigret and the Night Club Dancer” is quite star-studded with Brenda Blethyn (DCI Vera Stanhope in Vera, also released by Acorn, Pride & Prejudice), Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting, The Phantom of the Opera), and Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, 30 Rock, The Queen).

The Maigret episodes are beautifully filmed with a breathtaking view of Paris. The opening credits in black and white are an almost sentimental look at Paris in much the same way that Woody Allen views New York City in Manhattan.

Photos: Michael Gambon as the pipe-smoking Maigret, center, contemplates a case. Minnie Driver has a cameo in one episode. Photos courtsey Acorn Media