Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Happy Birthday, Robert McGinnis!

Today brings the 90th birthday of acclaimed American artist Robert McGinnis, who for decades now has been producing eye-catching, frequently sexy paperback cover illustrations—often for works of crime and mystery fiction—as well as iconic film posters. To celebrate, our sister blog Killer Covers will present nine of McGinnis’ most appealing book fronts, one per hour, in recognition of his first nine decades of life. You’ll find the completed set of those offerings here.

(The artwork topping this post comes from the 1972 Signet edition of Carter Brown’s The Aseptic Murders, one of many Brown paperbacks graced by McGinnis’ paintings over the years.)

Malice Toward All

Organizers of the annual Malice Domestic conference (to be held this year from April 29 to May 1) are out this morning with their nominees for the 2016 Agatha Awards. Those commendations honor “traditional mysteries,” meaning “books best typified by the works of Agatha Christie as well as others.” This year’s contenders are:

Best Contemporary Novel:
Burned Bridges, by Annette Dashofy (Henery Press)
Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron (Grand Central)
The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
What You See, by Hank Phillipi Ryan (Forge)

Best Historical Novel:
Malice at the Palace, by Rhys Bowen (Berkley)
The Masque of a Murderer, by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (Bantam)
Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, by Susan Elia Macneal (Bantam)
Murder on Amsterdam Avenue, by Victoria Thompson (Berkley)

Best First Novel:
Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman, by Tessa Arlen (Minotaur)
Macdeath, by Cindy Brown (Henery Press)
Plantation Shudders, by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane)
Just Killing Time, by Julianne Holmes (Berkley)
On the Road with Del & Louise, by Art Taylor (Henery Press)

Best Non-fiction:
The Great Detective: The Amazing Rise and Immortal Life of Sherlock Holmes, by Zack Dundas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins)
A Is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, by Kathryn Harkup (Bloomsbury USA)
Unsolved Murders and Disappearances in Northeast Ohio,
by Jane Ann Turzillo (Arcadia)
The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For, edited by Kate White (Quirk)

Best Short Story:
“A Year Without Santa Claus?” by Barb Goffman (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine [AHMM], January/February 2015)
“A Questionable Death,” by Edith Maxwell (from History and
Mystery, Oh My!
, edited by Sarah E. Glenn; Mystery & Horror, LLC)
“A Killing at the Beausoleil,” by Terri Farley Moran (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November 2015)
“Suffer the Poor,” by Harriette Sackler (from History and Mystery, Oh My!)
“A Joy Forever,” by B.K. Stevens (AHMM, March, 2015)

Best Children’s/Young Adult:
Pieces and Players, by Blue Balliett (Scholastic Press)
Need, by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH Books for Young Readers)
Andi Unstoppable, by Amanda Flower (Zonderkidz)
Woof, by Spencer Quinn (Scholastic Press)
Fighting Chance, by B.K. Stevens (Poisoned Pen Press)

Congratulations to all of the authors included here!

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Cash and Carried Away

This is amazing to learn, I know, but I’d never gotten around to reading Elliott Chaze’s 1953 heist novel, Black Wings Has My Angel, until New York Review Books Classics re-released it last month. What a striking and finely composed yarn Chaze unrolls in that slim work! It bowled me over so much that I decided to devote my latest Kirkus Reviews column to Black Wings. As I explain:
From the outset, we’re propelled into a noir-ish world—bleak, desperate, and haunting. There we encounter our antihero protagonist, a mid-20s prison escapee and car thief who calls himself Tim Sunblade (not his real name, of course). After four months of “roughnecking” on an oil rig that punctuates Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River, he’s more than ready for a “hot-water bath” and some fragrant female companionship. So he takes a room at a forgettable little hotel in a forgettable little town, and before he soaps up, he asks an obliging bellhop to find him a hooker for the evening. He’s more than a bit surprised when the porter returns with Virginia, an intriguingly well-spoken “ten-dollar tramp” boasting lavender-gray eyes, hair of a “light creamy gold,” and legs that go all the way down to the ground and then some. Sunblade had figured to exhaust one night of booze and sex with this woman, but that isn’t quite what happens.
Click here to enjoy the full critique.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

“Finger Trap” Finds Its Next Readers

It’s been just over a week since we proclaimed the start of The Rap Sheet’s second book-giveaway contest of 2016, and we now have the names of our four winners, all of them selected at random. Each of these lucky readers can look forward to receiving in the mail a free copy of Johnny Worthen’s latest mystery, The Finger Trap, sent directly to them by his publisher, Jolly Fish Press:

Rick Ollerman of Littleton, New Hampshire
Fiona Woods of Auburn, Washington
Jeremy Tennenbaum of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania
Paul McMurray of Milton, Wisconsin

We’re grateful to everyone who participated in this drawing. And those many of you who didn’t win this time around shouldn’t take it too hard, as we will have more opportunities for everyone to pick up free new crime and mystery novels in the near future.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Who Will Win the Hammett?

This morning also brings an announcement by the North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers of its nominees for the 2015 Hammett Prize. That commendation is given annually for “a work of literary excellence in the field of crime writing by a U.S. or Canadian author.” The five nominees are as follows:

The Stranger, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
Sorrow Lake, by Michael J. McCann (Plaid Raccoon Press)
The Whites, by Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt (Henry Holt)
The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin (Cinco Puntos Press)
The Organ Broker, by Stu Strumwasser (Arcade)

I’m particularly pleased to see Price’s The Whites on this list, as it is one of my own favorite crime novels from last year.

The recipient of this award will be announced during the NoirCon literary conference to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from October 26 to 30. Congratulations to all of the contenders!

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

A Quick Contest Reminder

Don’t forget that today marks your last chance to enter The Rap Sheet’s drawing for four free copies of Johnny Worthen’s The Finger Trap. To have a shot at winning one of these, all you need to do is e-mail your name and postal address to And be sure to type “Finger Trap Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight tonight, January 29. The winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page sometime tomorrow.

Sorry, but this particular giveaway competition is open only residents of the United States.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

My Ellrovian Journey

(Editor’s note: Steven Powell is a British scholar and the co-editor of The Venetian Vase, a crime fiction-oriented blog. He wrote Conversations with James Ellroy and edited the encyclopedic work 100 American Crime Writers, both released in 2012. In the essay below, Powell recalls the lengths he went to in order to produce his latest book, James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction.)

It was a blurred image of President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade which first brought my attention to the work of James Ellroy. I was in my mid-teens, on holiday with my parents on the south coast of England, when a leisurely detour through a local bookshop led me to spot a striking book cover that looked like it had been adapted from the Zapruder film: it was James Ellroy’s 1995, novel American Tabloid. I had never read Ellroy before, but a novel about the 1963 Kennedy assassination seemed interesting. Sure enough, a few pages in and I was gripped. Ellroy portrayed the assassination conspiracy from an Underworld perspective. His characters were brutal but sympathetic, the prose seemed both telegraphic and poetic. But what stood out more than anything else was Ellroy’s unapologetic determination to make the reader empathize with the characters who ultimately conspire to kill Kennedy. As he put it in the prologue, “America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.”

Of course back then I had no idea that I would one day write a book about Ellroy, but it was that chance discovery in a bookshop that was the genesis of what I like to call my “Ellrovian Journey,” a journey that culminated in the release last September of James Ellroy: Demon Dog of Crime Fiction, the latest addition in Palgrave Macmillan’s Crime Files series. Previous entries have included Barry Forshaw’s Death in a Cold Climate (2012) and Lee Horsley’s The Noir Thriller (2001). With this study of Ellroy, I have considered all of the author’s major works, examining how his writing style has changed between novels. I have also analyzed the role Ellroy’s “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction” persona has played in his literary career.

The book was adapted from my thesis. It was my better half who persuaded me that I should take my fascination with Ellroy’s work and direct it toward scholarly research, which is why the dedication of the book reads “For Diana—who started the journey.” During the course of my Ph.D. study, I had to decide what angle I would take in exploring Ellroy’s work. The novelist Craig McDonald has written, “Read five biographies of the same man, say, of Ernest Hemingway, and you’ll close each book feeling like you’ve read about five different people.” There seemed to be many different sides to James Ellroy and many aspects of his life and work I could focus on—the potential autobiographical connections in his fiction stemming from his often horrific early life, the unsolved murder of his mother, Ellroy’s descent into alcohol and drug abuse, and his various stints in the L.A. County Jail—which have all, to varying degrees, had an influence on his fiction. There is also the development of Ellroy’s idiosyncratic prose style. Read his debut, Brown’s Requiem (1981), a private-eye novel, and compare it to a later work such as the epic historical fiction of The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and you can see the remarkable evolution of both plotting and prose in Ellroy’s writing. Then again, a classic work such as The Black Dahlia (1987) could easily justify a Ph.D. in itself. In the end, I opted for a comprehensive study, examining all of the key issues in Ellroy’s work but paying special attention to his literary persona (against the advice of some academics who thought the Demon Dog role was just playacting on Ellroy’s part). Well, I was soon to learn that Ellroy is a very different man in private than his more outrageous media appearances would suggest.

Ellroy kindly consented to three telephone interviews, and when I visited his archive at the Thomas Cooper Library, University of South Carolina, I was able to travel to L.A. directly afterwards and interview Ellroy in person and at length. I had been studying his interviews for a long time, and when speaking to him, I was able to avoid subjects he had already exhausted in writing and conversation (such as his mother’s murder) and focus instead on his unfinished projects (“L.A. Death Trip” and “The Confessions of Bugsy Siegel”) and lesser-known works like the Lloyd Hopkins novels. So, following this research trip I began editing the anthology of interviews Conversations with James Ellroy for University Press of Mississippi. You never truly know when you’ll see a breakthrough while working on a project such as this, and curiously enough it was during a routine copyright request that I was afforded a glimpse into the role and purpose of the Demon Dog persona. One of the earliest interviews of Ellroy’s career was conducted by Duane Tucker and published in 1984 in the now-defunct but fondly remembered Armchair Detective magazine. When I contacted Tucker, he denied conducting the interview and suggested Ellroy used his name to write the interview himself. The more I looked at the interview, the more I became convinced that it is not a two-way conversation, but rather the young Ellroy’s written manifesto for what he wanted to achieve as a novelist. Of course, there were other possibilities: was Tucker winding me up? Had he simply forgotten the interview took place (as former Armchair Detective editor Otto Penzler suggested to me)? In the end, I was unable to elicit a confession from Ellroy, and the anthology states that the authorship of that 1984 interview is disputed, although my personal belief is that Ellroy wrote the interview out of a nascent literary ambition to craft his Demon Dog persona.

(Right) James Ellroy, photographed by Guillaume Paumier

Once I completed my Ph.D., Palgrave awarded me a contract to adapt it into a monograph. During the redrafting stages of the book, I kept myself busy by organizing the “James Ellroy: Visions of Noir” conference at the University of Liverpool. It was a deeply rewarding experience. Not only did we have noir expert Woody Haut as our keynote speaker and novelist Martin Edwards as the special guest, but it was interesting to see through the work of the delegates who came from as far afield as Brazil, Germany, and Australia how critical interest in Ellroy has developed rapidly in the past few years. Although not every critic holds Ellroy in high esteem. Ellroy’s always been a risk taker, and a consequence of this is that some experiments may alienate the reader. Mike Davis described Ellroy’s work as “at times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore.” In the book, I examine how Ellroy has developed his idiosyncratic prose and plotting style, which has won him legions of fans, but also some severe critics like Davis. Two of the key novels in the development of this style were the L.A. Quartet entries L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992). As I state in the book:
The sparse, distinct style Ellroy had achieved with L.A. Confidential, which was partly reliant on the removal of what he deemed unnecessary words, such as adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions, would become an issue in the first draft of White Jazz. According to [writer and digital marketer] Martin Kihn, Ellroy had taken this redacted style so far with White Jazz that words needed to be added back into the manuscript:
The first draft of Jazz, for instance, was even more clipped and opaque than the version about to be published. Working first with [literary agent Nat] Sobel, then Knopf editor Sonny Mehta, Ellroy painstakingly added words to the manuscript. “The first draft was extremely challenging,” says Mehta. “What James was doing was extremely ambitious. But I think you have to engage people and draw them into the story. And I thought essentially we had to make it a little easier for them.” (Kihn 1992: 34)
Ellroy, however, has offered a different account, claiming he only returned to the clipped style after finding the initial draft of the novel unsatisfactory: “I started writing White Jazz, in a normally discursive, first-person style, but the book felt flabby to me, so I started cutting words” (Powell 2008a: 159). Ellroy’s and Mehta’s accounts of the drafting process, taken together, indicate that the manuscript underwent a laborious process in which thousands of words were cut and then many were subsequently restored.
The immense levels of concentration and determination Ellroy had developed in outlining and writing his original L.A. Quartet ensured that those novels would become defining works in the crime genre. The dizzying, spellbinding style of his later novels American Tabloid and the recent Perfidia (2014) seamlessly flow from what he achieved in L.A. Confidential and White Jazz.

Ellroy’s journey from being a homeless alcoholic, periodically locked up in jail, to becoming one of the most acclaimed contemporary novelists is, in its own grueling fashion, a remarkable vindication of the American dream. As for my own Ellrovian journey—it goes on.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

James Nabs the Diamond

Peter James, 67-year-old author of a Brighton, England-based series starring Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (You Are Dead, Love You Dead), has been selected by the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) as the winner of its 2016 Diamond Dagger award.

In a press release announcing this prize, CWA chair L.C. “Len” Tyler called James “King of the Police Procedural. His books combine up-to-the-minute accuracy with tight plotting and a fast pace. Over the past 30 years or so, Peter has established himself as one of the best-known and best-loved thriller writers in the country. He is immensely supportive of other authors and his wide-ranging work inside and outside the genre has been recognized both by Brighton University and Sussex Police. I know this will be a popular choice both amongst readers and other crime writers.”

Previous recipients of the Diamond Dagger, which is given annually to “a writer who has a career marked by sustained excellence,” include Frederick Forsyth, Lee Child, Simon Brett, and Catherine Aird.

Friday, January 22, 2016

A Lounger-Sleuth and a Book Giveaway

Well, what do you know. It’s only the third week of January, and we’re already announcing our second book-giveaway contest of 2016. We surely won’t be able to keep up such a regular pace, but for now, Rap Sheet readers benefit. Any time you have the chance to score some free books has to be deemed an excellent opportunity.

This time, we have on offer four copies of The Finger Trap (Jolly Fish Press), by Salt Lake City author Johnny Worthen. The novel has been variously described as a modern noir yarn, a social satire, and just “a fun, fun read.” Here’s a plot synopsis, stolen blatantly from Worthen’s Web site:
When the only way out is deeper in …

Tony Flaner is a malingering part-time comedian, full-time sarcastic, who’s never had it hard, and never finished a thing in his life. He’s had 12 years to prepare for his divorce and didn’t. He had his entire life to choose a career and hasn’t. Now time’s up, and he’s in a world of trouble. But it gets worse. A first date and a drunken party ends with Tony facing prison for the murder of a girl he hardly knew.

Other than that, it was a pretty great party.

To save himself, wise-cracking Tony must discover who the mysterious girl was, what she was involved in, and what the hell she saw in him in the first place. Their lives are linked together at the ends of a Chinese finger trap, like life and death, friends and enemies, arugula quiche and pigs knuckles.
If you’d like to enter the drawing for one of these free four copies of The Finger Trap, simply e-mail your name and postal address to And be sure to type “Finger Trap Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight next Friday, January 29. The winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day.

Sorry, but this particular giveaway competition is open only residents of the United States.

* * *

Author Worthen—who has previously penned such works as Eleanor: The Unseen (2014) and The Brand Demand (2015), a mystery that won a Silver Quill Award from the League of Utah Writers—was kind enough to answer our invitation to write a “Story Behind the Story” essay about The Finger Trap. His piece on composing that novel and what he learned in the process is embedded below.

I write to theme. Yeah, I’m that guy. I can’t help it. I came into the writing thing from college. Not from an MFA program or creative-writing classes, but from criticism. I’m a Deconstructionist. I speak Lacan and Derrida. I see buried symbols and political posturings in toilet-paper ads. I learned my craft by dissection and not nurturing.

Of course when I began writing I didn’t think that I wrote this way, I just wrote. It was in later analysis that I found all the clues to give me a reading that made sense, and I realized what it was I trying to do all along. As time went by, the clues showed themselves to me beforehand and I put them in when I wrote. Sometimes they just appeared, because that’s how my synapses were wired. Sometimes I planned them carefully, planted symbols like treasure buried in the prose. I consciously put in subplots of parallel thematic resonances and contrasts. I wrote down what questions I was pursuing before I would begin and when I ever got lost, I’d use them as distant lighthouses to get me back on course.

It’s therapy. Writing this way, I explore ideas and see where they take me. I can delve into new emotional depths and discover things about myself by living through my characters. I always come out the other end different than I went in.

And then there’s Tony Flaner.

Tony Flaner is the protagonist in my new mystery, The Finger Trap. Although it’s my latest novel in print, The Finger Trap was among the first ones I wrote and is for me, without a doubt, my most important book.

(Right) Author Johnny Worthen

Tony is a malingering part-time comedian, full-time sarcastic, who’s never had it hard, and never finished a thing in his life. He is the recipient of white privilege, easy comfort, and a short attention span. He jumps from job to job and hobby to hobby like a bee lighting on spring flowers. He stays only as long as things are amusing, fun, and easy. Once they turn challenging, he’s gone, off to new adventures.

The model for the character was of course Charles Baudelaire’s 19th-century concept of the “flaneur,” or wanderer. A lounger. In modern ears, where we’re told to think of ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, this is a terrible-sounding thing. “Lounger” equates to deadbeat. There is something of that in Tony, to be sure, but Baudelaire didn’t mean it as a insult. He was trying to describe the human equivalent of carpe diem—seized the day. He saw the flaneur as one who, while going places, took time to enjoy the walk. If you’ve ever been to a park, and go to cross it, and find the path you’re on is full of meandering curves that take you past this gazebo, that pond, a rosebush, and an arboretum before landing you on the other side, thank Baudelaire’s flaneur. His concept of the wandering gentleman influenced architectural and civic planning. The flaneur is a noble creature, a sponge of life. This is also Tony Flaner.

And this is my aspiration.

When I wrote Tony, the question I was asking myself was what I want to be. You see, like Tony, I’ve had many jobs. My résumé is a long list of adventures and job titles. It reads to me like a comprehensive list of things I don’t want to do anymore. This is, however, how one finds another job, and that’s depressing. After my last stint with the corporate world, a front-line posting in the “war of drugs” no less, I gave myself a little unemployment time and a financial cushion to explore my swiftly diminishing lifespan and start doing something I wanted to do while I still had good days ahead.

At the top of the list was writing. Writing is the thread that connects every job and every aspiration I’ve ever had. I’ve always written, be it journals, games, blogs, newsletters, suicide notes, what have you—it’s always been part of my life. But I’ve never taken it seriously. Writing had only ever been a hobby for me.

Like Tony, I have many hobbies. Lots and lots. And to all these distractions I give only what time and energy I feel I can, and when they’re not fun anymore (like paintball) or get too hard (like programming), I drop them like a hot rock and find something else to take my time and money.

I know the odds. I knew them then. In what will surely be nominated as the understatement of the year, let me say that becoming a successful writer is a challenge. To have any kind of chance, it behooves one (yes, I said behooves) to treat it as more than a hobby. Writing is rough. It is floods of rejection for every gulp of encouragement. It’s damning and personal and hard. Yes, hard. Every aspect of it is hard, from ideas to editing, marketing, placing, promoting—it’s all hard and it pays less than begging under an off-ramp. Significantly less, if I’m to believe the Internet.

Sure, there’s some fun. The act of creation is wonderful, but for me, at every hard moment, I was tempted to follow my usual path of least resistance and quit. Like Tony.

Analyze The Finger Trap and you will see that it is meta on multiple levels. First, the book is indulgent, wandering, amusing, and long. Flaneur. The theme is in the presentation as much as the protagonist’s attitude. Life is short. That’s a free one for you. Enjoy it while you can. As I faced the questions of new careers and choices and lifestyles, that was the one solid bit of truth I knew to keep. Enjoy life. Take it easy. It’s the journey, not the destination. Flaneur.

On another meta level though, The Finger Trap is the physical manifestation of Tony’s quest echoed in the author’s achievement. I gave the book my all. Putting off immediate gratification, approaching the hard parts as lessons to learn for my new career, determined to see something through to the end, I persevered until I took it from cool idea to awesome physical reality. It is a magical artifact. It is more than any of my other books, a totem.

When I teach writing classes now, I always lead with Tony’s lesson to me about success: finish what you start. It’s a simple thing, but for me, it’s a mantra of meaning that I didn’t understand before The Finger Trap, at least not all the way. From Tony’s lead, I have a new stubbornness. I have seven novels in print, a plethora (yes, I said plethora) of published short stories, and I’m in demand to mentor. I am now on my way to becoming what I wanted to be: a successful writer. And also from Tony, I’m trying to remember to not take anything too seriously, to find the ridiculous in everything, and finally to enjoy the ride.

The Finger Trap is a story of one man’s amusing journey of self discovery and social satire. It’s a story of murder and mystery, mid-life crisis, and adult film stars. It’s a story of life in America in the 21st century. It’s a story of completion. It’s a story of redemption. With quiche. And a puppet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Battling Crime in War’s Aftermath

Reading John A. Connell’s novels—2015’s Ruins of War and its soon-to-be released sequel, Spoils of Victory—you get a pretty clear picture of the mess Germany was left in after Allied forces defeated its military in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe. Repeated bombings had left cities in rubble. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were homeless, hungry, in despair, having lost touch with family and friends. The country’s industrial sector was in shambles, and there were plans to dismantle it further as a safeguard against future German aggression. Theft was rampant. People who had once endorsed Adolf Hitler’s rise were anxious to take advantage of “denazification” procedures that would make it easier for them to do business again. The country had been divided up into zones dominated by the victorious Allied forces—the Americans, the British, the French, and the Soviets. But the good intentions of military commanders in those areas couldn’t prevent greed and corruption from undermining order and fragile hope.

In Ruins of War, Connell imagined a serial killer running rampant in bomb-ravaged postwar Munich, Germany, pursued with persistent resolve by Mason Collins, a half-German former Chicago homicide detective and ex-prisoner of war, who currently serves as a criminal investigator with the U.S. Army. He may not be much for following rules and regulations, but like Bernie GuntherPhilip Kerr’s lead in a succession of novels set during and after World War II (the newest being this March’s release, The Other Side of Silence)—Collins can rely on his sleuthing skills, no matter where he’s asked to practice them.

As I write in my latest Kirkus Reviews column—posted this morning—Spoils of Victory demands that Collins demonstrate those skills in a case involving both murder and illicit trade in stolen goods:
[It] finds Collins transferred to the quaint Bavarian resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the German-Austrian border, where a curiously well-off Counter Intelligence Corps agent, John Winstone, meets a grisly end along with his German mistress, Hilda. Collins’ superiors would prefer those tragedies be listed as murder-suicide, but Connell’s protagonist becomes convinced that Winstone was slain before he could expose an extensive black-market operation involving former Nazis and, in all likelihood, advantageously positioned U.S. Army personnel. Aided by Hilda’s damaged sister, a Jewish informant with everything to lose, and a new partner all too willing to tackle tenuous leads, Collins pursues Winstone’s missing evidence of black-market shenanigans, in the process turning up more corpses as well as the trail of a Nazi torturer from his past.
Earlier this month I conducted a multi-part e-mail interview with Georgia-born author Connell, who now lives in Spain. I only had room in my new Kirkus column, though, for a modest portion of our exchange, which covered subjects ranging from his boyhood reading experiences and earlier career as a cameraman for films and TV series, to his fondness for music and history, postwar Europe’s thriving black markets, and his foremost writing challenges. What didn’t fit in Kirkus—which was quite a lot—I have embedded below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Let’s begin by collecting some biographical data. Where were you born? And who were your parents?

John A. Connell: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. My father is retired, but he was an architect and professor of architecture and city planning. My mother was a registered nurse in the Navy during and shortly after World War II, but by the time my brother and I came along, she was a mother and housewife.

JKP: Were you a big reader when you were young?

JAC: When I was very young, my parents read to us kids every night, and my mother had signed up my older brother and I for a children’s book club, which came to a book a week. It wasn’t until I was in my early teens that I began reading voraciously. I read everything by H.G. Wells, including his The Outline of History [1920]. I also devoured Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a little later I became a Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle devotee. I guess, aside from Burroughs, I was an Anglophile reader, especially works of England during the second half of the 19th century.

JKP: As you were growing up, were there people in your life who encouraged you to read or to write? Who were those folks?

JAC: My parents had shelves loaded with books, and even at an early age I was fascinated with them. My mother was an avid reader and took us to the library every weekend to check out books. Also, my brother, who is four years older than me, introduced me to books about World War I and II—I remember one about World War I flying aces being a particular favorite. And when my brother was out, I would sneak into his room to read his collection of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, because my mother thought they were too risqué for a boy my age. No one encouraged me to write—that came on its own.

JKP: So when did you first know that you wanted to become a writer someday?

JAC: I wrote short stories starting in my teens, but only for myself. The first story anyone read was my history teacher in the 10th grade. I wrote quite a gory account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre [of 1572]. After reading it he suggested that I should become a novelist, but at that time I had dreams of being a rock ’n’ roll star. The rest of my stories were hybrid versions of H.G. Wells’ short stories, and I wrote in a very Victorian manner, with page-long passages. But for all of my teenage and young adult life, I never thought I would be good enough, and music in my teens and 20s, then camerawork, occupied my creative life. Still, that bug to write was always with me, and then, around the age of 40, I expressed my dream of writing to a screenwriter friend, and he said, “Shut up, sit down, and write.” I did, and the writing “disease” immediately took hold. I started with screenplays, which seemed like the natural thing to do, since I worked in the film business. But I became frustrated with the confinement of the screenplay form. I wanted to go deeper into my characters and the world that surrounded them. That’s when I tried my hand at novels and never looked back.

JKP: Where did you go to school? Were you a good student?

JAC: I went to Georgia State University in Atlanta. I was bored in high school, but college opened my eyes to learning, and I wanted to learn everything. I bounced around, trying out several majors, even physics for about two quarters. I concentrated on psychology, and almost completed the course work required for a degree, but then finally switched to Anthropology and got my B.A. in that field. I wasn’t at all what you call distinguished. All the time I was in college, I thought I was going to be a musician and music composer (though, ironically, I never pursued a music degree in college).

JKP: What had inspired your interest in music?

JAC: My mother had a spinet piano in the dining room, and when I was 4 or 5, I started to improvise simple tunes and musical phrases. No Mozart by any stretch of the imagination, but it was enough to convince my mother to drag me to piano lessons until I was 13. I displayed some talent, but lacked discipline and preferred to make up my own music rather than learn the classics. I sang and played the organ in rock ’n’ roll bands in high school, then jazz piano in college, all the while thinking I would one day become a composer.

JKP: So what finally ended that career dream?

JAC: I had a gift for performance and composing, but I lacked the passion and discipline to master the craft. And at that young age, if whatever I wrote didn’t come out as instantly brilliant then I abandoned it, which was all too often. When I finally walked away from music, I was crushed, and as a consequence I haven’t returned to keyboard since.

Looking back, I realize that music was my outlet for a driving urge to create, and camerawork served that same purpose until I discovered my true passion, writing.

JKP: Was it as a student, or sometime later, that you developed an interest in history? And what made you interested in that subject, when so many other people are not?

JAC: I’d always been fascinated with history, ever since I was a child. My parents had a four-volume set of books, History of the World, published in 1880. I read through those books time and again, and studied the illustrations for hours. And, certainly, from the books I read as a teenager, I had a fascination with 19th-century England. But it was my 10th-grade history teacher who really instilled in me my passion for history. He explained moments in history, not through tedious rote memorization, but through the eyes of those who lived it, and how the world around them impacted their decisions—good and bad. That was a real eye-opener for me. Anything, books and film, that allowed me to peer into this magical looking glass of the past, I devoured, especially stories involving the common man and woman caught up in tumultuous events of their time and called upon to do extraordinary things.

JKP: I understand you took a job as a printing-press operator after college. How did that fit into your life’s goals? And was there anything you learned in that occupation which proved useful later on?

JAC: Right after college, I was living on my own and planning on getting married. I needed an income, and fast. I was pretty nonconformist at that time, and had long hair and a beard—which didn’t go over very well in Georgia in the ’70s—so my choices boiled down to being a veterinarian’s assistant or a printing-press operator. I chose the latter because it paid more. I hated the job, but I decided to stick with it until I knew what I wanted to do with my life. If there was anything I learned from that occupation, it is that I never wanted to do that again.

JKP: You subsequently studied up enough to win jobs as a cameraman on films and TV programs. The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) offers up a long list of your credits behind the camera, including your work on Thelma & Louise and Jurassic Park, and on TV series such as David E. Kelley’s The Practice and David Milch’s NYPD Blue. What are you best and worst memories of being behind the camera?

JAC: I have quite a few of both. The worst being some of the politics or over-inflated egos on a particular shoot, those [people] who considered their endeavors on the same level as life-saving brain surgery or [thought] their movie was destined to save the world. The best being the opportunity to work with some great artists, directors, and cinematographers, and watching a story unfold through the camera’s viewfinder.

JKP: What’s the most important lesson you took away from filmmaking that has helped you as a fiction writer?

JAC: I’ve learned a lot from film and television, but, if I had to pick the most important, it would be dialogue. I’m not about to say that I’ve reached the heights of talent that I’ve experienced working on or watching a great film, but I have learned how important it is. The best dialogue can tell a great deal in a few succinct lines. It also has subtext—what people say and what they mean can be two different things, and often convey meaning and emotion on several levels. And dialogue is more memorable and impactful when it’s taken out of the ordinary, out of the banal speech of everyday life, and twisted or flipped on its head.

JKP: So which films and filmmakers taught you the most valuable lessons about writing dialogue?

JAC: My first influences for dialogue came from films made in the 1930s and ’40s, films like Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, His Girl Friday, or The Women. Some of my all-time favorites were adapted from the stage, like Inherit the Wind and The Lion in Winter. Anything Aaron Sorkin [has done], particularly The West Wing, The Newsroom, and A Few Good Men. Then there’s David Milch again, with Deadwood. Remarkable. I loved it when he would have a scene with two characters talking about completely different things to each other, neither listening to what the other one was saying, but their dueling dialogue conveyed so much in a brief span of time.

JKP: Do any other film or TV folk stand out in your memory?

JAC: Other than David Milch, who I mentioned from NYPD Blue, there was also executive producer Bill Clark. He was a retired NYPD police detective and often talked to the actors about his time on the force, what really happened behind the closed doors in interrogation rooms, or the peculiar symbiotic relationships that could develop between cop and criminal. I learned a lot about that world just listening to Mr. Clark’s candid remarks. I loved watching Ridley Scott build a scene like a mad conductor with an orchestra, or how he worked with the actors to pull out the best of their characters. David E. Kelley also comes to mind, with his quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and his willingness to push the envelope when telling a story.

JKP: As a cameraman, you were living and working mostly in Los Angeles. So how and when did you wind up moving to Paris?

JAC: I fell in love with Paris after my first visit in the ’80s, and Europe in general. My wife and I met and married in Los Angeles, then about a year later, and right after buying our dream house—at least as much of a dream house as we could afford—my wife, who is French, was offered a very good job in Paris. I had dreamed of devoting my full time to writing and living in Europe, Paris in particular, so I said yes with little hesitation.

My wife, Janine, took the position of deputy general director of SACD, or Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques. It is a French society, started in 1777, that manages, promotes, and protects the performance rights of theatrical, audiovisual, or photographic works for their creators by collecting royalties and authorizing performances. She held that position for 12 years, before taking on the same position for the Spanish equivalent of SACD, called Sociedad General de Autores y Editores, or SGAE, in Madrid, Spain. So, as of the end of last October, we’ve been living in Madrid.

JKP: Was it before you moved to Europe, or after, that you came up with the idea for a series set in the aftermath of World War II and starring a criminal investigator in Germany?

JAC: I came up with the idea for the Mason Collins series after I moved to Paris, and I think that my expat experiences, that notion of being a foreigner in a foreign land, has had an influence on how I developed Mason as a character. As I was writing Mason’s story, his expat wanderlust came out of seemingly nowhere—until I realized that, unconsciously, it had come from me.

JKP: Had you tried writing novels before Ruins of War? Are there piles of unpublished John Connell books moldering someplace in a basement corner or desk drawer?

JAC: I wrote four other unpublished novels before completing Ruins of War. Perhaps, one day, I may try to resurrect one or more of the more promising stories sequestered in the “cyber drawer” on my hard drive.

JKP: Were you most interested, originally, in fictionalizing Germany after World War II or in writing a detective novel?

JAC: Of the four novels before Ruins of War, three are historical crime fiction, but none are detective novels. Though I’ve read and loved many detective novels, I hadn’t considered writing in that specific subgenre. It was Mason Collins’ back story, as a U.S. Army CID [Criminal Investigation Division] investigator, that dictated I go there, and I’ve enjoyed it immensely.

JKP: Had you long been a reader of crime fiction? Who were your favorite authors in the genre when you started Ruins of War?

JAC: Aside from [reading] most all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories as a teenager, I also turned to Agatha Christie, then Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. I have so many favorite authors, crime fiction and otherwise, and scores of great writers have influenced my writing. I can say that some of the authors who had an influence on my approach to Ruins of War and Spoils of Victory were James Ellroy, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson DeMille, Dennis Lehane, and a dash of Graham Greene.

JKP: Two facets of Collins’ history interest me in particular. First, that he’d broken “the blue code of silence” while a member of the Chicago Police Department and been subsequently booted from the CPD, “and blackballed from every big-city police force” in the States. Second, that he’d been a prisoner of war and resident of German concentration camps, including horrific Buchenwald. How important were those elements in your creation of Collins as a character, and how do they influence his behavior?

JAC: Early in his detective career at the CPD, Mason tries to bust a ring of corrupt cops who murdered his partner. He broke the blue code of silence by going to the district attorney, but the system turned on him, framing him for selling drugs and booting him off the force. That unjust treatment fosters Mason’s distrust and lack of respect for authority. And being blackballed from every big-city police force is another facet of the masterless samurai ethos, leaving Mason with no ties to home. Except for his grandmother, he has no family to go back to, nothing to anchor him, little to create a sense of identity except through his own convictions. And the experience of being a POW and interned for a short time in Buchenwald has left him bitter and disillusioned with humanity. Yet, despite those deep scars, he manages to maintain his need to right wrongs, even if it means putting himself in harm’s way.

Those two elements relentlessly weigh on Mason’s psyche, threatening to push him over the line, creating a constant clash against his values of right and wrong, his sense of justice. Mason fights the temptation to give in to his negative impulses, taking on life one step at a time, all the while knowing that one or two steps in the wrong direction could lead him on a very dark path. One thing I would like to explore is having him turn dark at some point in the journey, [find] something that pushes him to abandon his strict moral code, and see if he can ever get back again.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany.

JKP: The action in Ruins of War took place in Munich, but Spoils of Victory finds Mason Collins hard at work in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a Bavarian mountain resort town that was barely touched by World War II. Why did that town become such a hotbed of postwar criminality, and when was it finally cleaned up?

JAC: As the Third Reich collapsed, and the Allied armies were pushing in from the west and east, Garmisch-Partenkirchen became the stem of the funnel for fleeing wealthy Germans, Nazi government officials and war criminals, retreating SS, and former French Vichy and Mussolini officials. For the same reason it also became the final destination for Nazi-stolen art masterpieces, vast reserves of the Third Reich gold, currencies, precious gems, penicillin, diamonds, and uranium from the failed atomic bomb experiments. After the war, all that became available for purchase on the black market. With millions of dollars to be made, murder, extortion, bribes, and corruption became the norm. The promise of fortunes also brought in a multitude of scoundrels, scam artists, and gangsters. Add to this tens of thousands of bored U.S. Army soldiers ripe for temptation. The black market thrived, and gangs of deserted allied soldiers, former POWs, and corrupt displaced persons roamed the countryside. With the U.S. officials looking the other way or profiting from the activity, some gangs were so successful they even had their own logos and printed stationary.

The clean-up started just about the time of Spoils of Victory, the spring of 1946. But it would be at least another year and a half before things settled down. I say, “settled down,” because the transition happened quietly, with much of it swept under the carpet. There was too much at stake, with the growing tensions with the Russians, for a damaging U.S. Army scandal to come out to the public. A few of the more egregious players were convicted, while others received a slap on the wrist, and some just disappeared or blithely returned home after their tour had ended. Also, in the ensuing two years, the army and military government had gotten their act together, with better top-down organization, tighter supervision, and a centralized military police force with the formation of the U.S. Constabulary Force.

JKP: Your man Collins isn’t big on obeying rules or kowtowing to Army brass hats. Is a great part of his credibility as a character linked to the fact that he is operating in an environment susceptible to confusion, and where there has to be some flexibility in how things are done? On a big-city police force, he might not have as much leeway to address matters in his own blunt-force fashion.

JAC: During those first two years [after World War II], the conquering armies struggled with the enormous task of transforming into an occupational force in a country that had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Those problems were exacerbated by the lack of top-down organization, lateral cohesion, and rivalries between army agencies, army commanders, and military government officials. There was no central policing structure (that would come later with the establishment of the U.S. Constabulary Force), and when the war ended, a large majority of experienced CID officers and MPs were sent home for time served and army downsizing for budgetary reasons. That left the MP and CID short-handed, with units in a state of disorganization. And many soldiers, untrained in law enforcement, were pulled from other fighting units to fill the gaps. Many times the CID officers were left to fend for themselves, lacking personnel and resources, in a chaotic situation. So, it’s not hard to imagine that Mason was given a good bit of leeway when conducting an investigation, and for him to conduct a successful investigation, he had to do things that, under normal circumstances, would be considered over the line—not to mention Mason’s preference for doing things on his own.

And just to add a little cherry on top: The MP commander in Spoils of Victory is loosely based on an actual MP commander in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, who is believed to have suffered a stroke, leaving him in a confused mental state, but because the army needed commanders, they gave him this command position because of his war record.

JKP: In many respects, the tales you tell in these two books could have been set, instead, in Chicago or Los Angeles or any large U.S. city. How conscious are you of inserting elements into your plots that ground the stories necessarily in postwar Europe?

JAC: I was quite conscious of inserting elements of post-WWII Germany into my plot precisely because history inspired the stories. The circumstances, the characters, and settings dictated where I should go, and, conversely, where I should not tread. In Ruins of War it was the destroyed city, where a killer like Jeffery Dahmer or Ted Bundy is loose in the ruins with a half-million easy prey. The elements of chaos and confusion of the occupying army, and the distrust and resentment on both the American and German sides [enhance the plot].

In Spoils of Victory, the scale of the black market, the peculiar partnership of mortal enemies now united in crime, and, again, the general chaos in Germany, the disorganization of the law-enforcement agencies, all came together in this unique time and place. Then throw in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a fairy-tale town in a picturesque setting being the home to organized crime on a grand scale.

JKP: There’s obviously a serious tone to Spoils of Victory, but there are also a number of funny moments. How important do you think humor is in crime and mystery fiction?

JAC: I don’t think it’s vital, but I enjoy novels that introduce some humor in otherwise dark stories. Humor provides relief from the serious tones, and gives characters an additional dimension. I liken it to when police officers or soldiers use humor to break the stress of their jobs.

JKP: I’m impressed that you took on the writing of a detective series set around the tumult of the Second World War. After all, there’s stiff competition for readers of such stories, including from Philip Kerr and J. Robert Janes. What can you bring to our understanding of that era and the people who survived it that others might not?

JAC: I’ve read countless non-fiction and fiction books about the lead-up to World War II and during the war itself, but very few in its immediate aftermath, especially through the eyes of an American soldier. I had assumed that, while there was destruction and deprivation, post-WWII was relatively peaceful and the transition to democratic Germany went smoothly. But I was blown away by what I discovered about that era.

The Germans called the time just after the war Die Stunde Null, “The Zero Hour.” Germany had been bombed back to the Middle Ages. Death by famine, disease, and murder had replaced the bullets and bombs. Over 10 million people brought into Germany as slaves, along with the tens of thousands of POW and concentration camp survivors, were all suddenly freed and making the trek home or wandering the countryside. Then came the millions of ethnic Germans expelled from Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, streaming into Germany with nothing but what they could carry on their backs.

I wanted to explore the madness and chaos, the struggle by the Americans and British to forge a democracy out of a population that had only known dictatorship for 13 years, all while the threat of a new war with Russia brewed on the horizon. I wanted to show that, while the vast majority of the U.S. military personnel strove to do their best, there was a surprising amount of corruption and crime. The conquering armies—the Americans, British, French and Russians—wielded ultimate power over a desperate population, and a typical soldier could barter for almost anything with a single pack of cigarettes. And that power led some to ruthlessly exploit a broken country and its people.

I then imagined a war veteran in that backdrop of chaos and deprivation. U.S. Army criminal investigator Mason Collins not only experienced the brutal fighting on the front lines, but also suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Nazis. He is of German birth and bitter towards the German people for supporting an evil regime. But he, like many American soldiers, finds he must resolve his anger and prejudices after witnessing so much destruction and suffering.

JKP: How long would you like to keep the Mason Collins series going? And now that you’ve demonstrated success as a novelist, do you have other sorts of books in mind to tackle someday?

JAC: I would like to continue with Mason Collins for as long as I feel I can keep him and his journey fresh. I have a few vague ideas for other books, and they all fall in the historical crime-fiction category. But for now, I have my hands full with Mason.

JKP: What’s the most important thing you still need to learn to really succeed as a fiction writer?

JAC: I believe a writer should always strive to improve and learn. Having said that, I wish I could learn to do a complete outline, while keeping it fresh and surprising. Right now, I’m a hybrid writer—somewhere between a “pantser” and an outliner. When I start, I know the beginning, the end, and a few plot points in between. Then I sit down and start writing. I like discovering things along the way, seeing situations or sudden turns I might miss if I adhered to a rigid outline. But I’d certainly be a more efficient writer if I could master creating a more complete outline.

I’m also a lousy typist. I definitely see some need for improvement there.

JKP: Finally, if you could have penned any novel that doesn’t currently carry your byline, which would it be?

JAC: Is that a clever way of asking what is my favorite novel? I have too many favorites to choose just one. However, if I was forced to choose, and this is somewhat off the top of my head, it would be The Name of the Rose.

(Author photograph by Pictange.)

Did You Win “All Involved”?

One week ago we announced the beginning of The Rap Sheet’s first book-giveaway contest for 2016. The prizes: three copies of All Involved, Ryan Gattis’ ambitious novel about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, just released in paperback by Ecco. Today, after a random drawing of names, we have our three winners. They are:

John Geraci of Redondo Beach, California
Carl and Lida Sloan of Seattle, Washington
Russell S. Rein of Ypsilanti, Michigan

Our congratulations to these lucky Rap Sheet readers. They should all receive copies of Gattis’ book soon, sent directly from the publisher.

If you aren’t among these winners? Well, buck up, friends: There’s another giveaway competition scheduled to get underway in surprisingly short order. Watch for it!

One Hell of an Edgars Race

Not coincidentally, today brings the 207th anniversary of author-editor Edgar Allan Poe’s birth as well as an announcement, by the Mystery Writers of America, of which books and writers have been nominated for the 2016 Edgar Awards. It strikes me as a strong line-up, particularly in the Best Critical/Biographical category, where Martin Edwards’ excellent book about Golden Age crime writers is facing off against both Nathan Ward’s insightful work about Dashiell Hammett and Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan’s collection of correspondence between authors Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald.

Below is the complete list of this year’s Edgar contenders.

Best Novel:
The Strangler Vine, by M.J. Carter (Putnam)
The Lady from Zagreb, by Philip Kerr (Putnam)
Life or Death, by Michael Robotham (Mulholland)
Let Me Die in His Footsteps,
by Lori Roy (Dutton)
Canary, by Duane Swierczynski (Mulholland)
Night Life, by David C. Taylor (Forge)

Best First Novel by an American Author:
Past Crimes,
by Glen Erik Hamilton (Morrow)
Where All Light Tends to Go,
by David Joy (Putnam)
Luckiest Girl Alive,
by Jessica Knoll (Simon & Schuster)
The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press)
Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking)

Best Paperback Original:
The Long and Faraway Gone, by Lou Berney (Morrow)
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, by Malcolm Mackay (Mulholland)
What She Knew, by Gilly Macmillan (Morrow)
Woman with a Blue Pencil, by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street)
Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty (Seventh Street)
The Daughter, by Jane Shemilt (Morrow)

Best Fact Crime:
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide, by Eric Bogosian (Little, Brown)
Where the Bodies Were Buried: Whitey Bulger and the World that Made Him, by T.J. English (Morrow)
Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by Allen Kurzweil (Harper)
Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime, by Val McDermid (Grove Press)
American Pain: How a Young Felon and His Ring of Doctors Unleashed America’s Deadliest Drug Epidemic, by John Temple (Lyons Press)

Best Critical/Biographical:
The Golden Age of Murder, by Martin Edwards (HarperCollins)
The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue, by Frederick Forsyth (Putnam)
Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan (Arcade)
Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming’s Jamaica, by Matthew Parker (Pegasus)
The Lost Detective: Becoming Dashiell Hammett, by Nathan Ward (Bloomsbury USA)

Best Short Story:
“The Little Men,” by Megan Abbott (Mysterious Bookshop)
“On Borrowed Time,” by Mat Coward (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], May 2015)
“The Saturday Night Before Easter Sunday,” by Peter Farrelly (in Providence Noir, edited by Ann Hood; Akashic)
“Family Treasures,” by Shirley Jackson (in Let Me Tell You, edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt; Random House)
“Obits,” by Stephen King (in Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by
Stephen King; Scribner)
“Every Seven Years,” by Denise Mina (Mysterious Bookshop)

Best Juvenile:
Catch You Later, Traitor, by Avi (Workman)
If You Find This, by Matthew Baker (Little, Brown
Books for Young Readers)
Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head, by Lauren Oliver & H.C. Chester (HarperCollins Children’s Books)
Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands (Aladdin)
Footer Davis Probably Is Crazy, by Susan Vaught (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman)

Best Young Adult:
Endangered, by Lamar Giles (HarperTeen)
A Madness So Discreet, by Mindy McGinnis (HarperCollins/
Katherine Tegen)
The Sin Eater’s Daughter, by Melinda Salisbury (Scholastic Press)
The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma (Workman)
Ask the Dark, by Henry Turner (Clarion)

Best Television Episode Teleplay:
“Episode 7,” Broadchurch, teleplay by Chris Chibnall (BBC America)
“Gently with the Women,” George Gently, teleplay by
Peter Flannery (Acorn TV)
“Elise,” Foyle’s War, teleplay by Anthony Horowitz (Acorn TV)
“Terra Incognita,” Person of Interest, teleplay by Erik Mountain and Melissa Scrivner Love (CBS/Warner Brothers)
“The Beating of Her Wings,” Ripper Street, teleplay by
Richard Warlow (BBC America)

Robert L. Fish Memorial Award:
“Chung Ling Soo’s Greatest Trick,” by Russell W. Johnson
(EQMM, January 2015)

Grand Master:
Walter Mosley

Raven Awards:
Margaret Kinsman and Sisters in Crime

Ellery Queen Award:
Janet Rudolph, founder of Mystery Readers International

The Simon & Schuster/Mary Higgins Clark Award:
A Woman Unknown, by Frances Brody (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne)
The Masque of a Murderer, by Suzanna Calkins (Minotaur)
Night Night, Sleep Tight, by Hallie Ephron (Morrow)
The Child Garden, by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)
Little Pretty Things, by Lori Rader-Day (Seventh Street)

The winners in all categories are set to be declared on April 28 in New York City. Congratulations to all of the nominees!

Monday, January 18, 2016

“Sometimes Wrong Is Just Wrong”

Don Winslow, author of last year’s best-selling novel The Cartel, about efforts to bring down a drugs kinpin in Mexico, is not impressed—no, not impressed at all—by U.S. actor Sean Penn’s recent success in scoring an interview with Joaquín Guzmán, the freshly recaptured head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. Winslow writes in Deadline Hollywood:
As someone who has researched and written about the Mexican cartels and the futile “war on drugs” for coming on twenty years, I know how tough a subject it is. Mind-bending, soul-warping, heartbreaking, it challenges your intellect, your beliefs, your faith in humanity and God. No journalist or writer who has ever tackled it has emerged quite the same – and all too many have not survived at all, but been tortured, mutilated and killed on the orders of such as Joaquin Guzman. (I resist the cute sobriquet of “Chapo.“ He is not one of the Seven Dwarfs—not Dopey, or Sneezy or Bashful. He’s a mass murderer.)

When I first heard that Penn had done an interview with Guzman, I was wondering what terms were demanded to grant that interview. Penn has a reputation of not shying away from controversy or hard, unpopular stances. I was hoping that he would ask Guzman questions that would matter.

Mr. Penn tells Charlie Rose that he considers the article a failure because it did not succeed in addressing his real issue—our policies of the “war on drugs.” But in an article of 10,500 words, the phrase “war on drugs” appears three times. It was not the purpose or focus of Penn’s horribly misguided piece.

Penn’s article had nothing to do with the forty year, trillion dollar failure that is the “war on drugs”—it was instead a brutally simplistic and unfortunately sympathetic portrait of a mass murderer. Penn thought he had scored a journalistic coup—instead his interview was the by-product of Guzman’s infatuation with a soap-opera actress (Guzman didn’t even know who Penn was) and told the exact story that Guzman wanted—with line by line editorial approval courtesy of Penn and
Rolling Stone.
You can read Winslow’s full commentary here.

(Hat tip to Linda L. Richards.)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Your Time Is Running Out

If you haven’t yet submitted your entry to The Rap Sheet’s first 2016 book-giveaway contest, be warned that there are only two days left to do so. The prizes are three copies of All Involved, Ryan Gattis’ ambitious novel about the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

For a chance at winning one of those, you need only e-mail your name and postal address to And be sure to type “All Involved Contest” in the subject line. Entries will be accepted between now and midnight tomorrow, January 18. The three winners will be chosen completely at random, and their names listed on this page the following day. (Sorry, but this particular drawing is open only to residents of the United States.)

More information about All Involved, as well as author Gattis’ write-ups on five Los Angeles-set works of crime fiction that inspired his work on this novel, can be found here.

* * *

Meanwhile, there’s less than a week left now during which to cast your votes in The Rap Sheet’s Best Crime Fiction Cover of 2015 competition. You will find all 20 nominees here, along with a ballot on which you can make your preferences known.

At last check, the five books leading the race are (in this order): Monday’s Lie, by Jamie Mason; The Fury of Black Jaguar, by Angel Luis Colón; Scratch the Surface, by Josh K. Stevens; True Grift, by Jack Bunker; and Strings of Murder, by Oscar de Muriel.

We’ll keep the polls open only until midnight this coming Friday, January 22, after which the results will be announced.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Out of Lefty Field

With the 2016 Left Coast Crime convention—aka “The Great Cactus Caper”—fast approaching (it is scheduled to be held in Phoenix, Arizona, from February 25 to 28), the nominees were announced today in five categories of Lefty Awards. They are:

Lefty for Best Humorous Mystery Novel:
Lord of the Wings, by Donna Andrews (Minotaur)
Plantation Shudders, by Ellen Byron (Crooked Lane)
February Fever, by Jess Lourey (Midnight Ink)
Dying for a Donut, by Cindy Sample (Cindy Sample)
Crushed Velvet, by Diane Vallere (Berkley Prime Crime)

Lefty for Best Historical Mystery Novel (formerly the Bruce Alexander Memorial Historical Mystery Award, given to the best mystery novel covering events before 1960):
Malice at the Palace, by Rhys Bowen (Berkley Prime Crime)
The Masque of a Murderer, by Susanna Calkins (Minotaur)
The Chocolate Kiss-Off, by Heather Haven (Wives of Bath Press)
The Secret Life of Anna Blanc, by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street)
Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King (Bantam)
Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, by Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam)

Lefty for Best LCC Regional Mystery Novel (set in this year’s LCC geographic region, meaning the Mountain Time Zone and all time zones westward to Hawaii):
The Crossing, by Michael Connelly, (Little, Brown)
Night Tremors, by Matt Coyle (Oceanview)
The Promise, by Robert Crais, (Putnam)
The Accidental Alchemist, by Gigi Pandian (Midnight Ink)
Young Americans, by Josh Stallings (Heist)

Lefty for Best World Mystery Novel (set outside the LCC
geographic region):

The Long and Faraway Gone, by Lou Berney (Morrow)
Dragon Day, by Lisa Brackmann (Soho Crime)
The Killing Kind, by Chris Holm (Mulholland)
The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
Stone Cold Dead, by James W. Ziskin, (Seventh Street)

A press release from LCC organizers explains that the Leftys “will be voted on at the convention and presented at a banquet on Saturday, February 27, at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

This Bookstore Needs Your Help

Uh-oh. I feared that all might not be well at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop when, in September 2014, it moved back into its previous, smaller digs in the city’s Pioneer Square historical district. Now comes this note, titled “Save Seattle Mystery Bookshop”:

You know us, we’re old friends. We’re Seattle Mystery Bookshop, a specialty store dedicated to the art of the mystery novel. We’re also quite fond of thrillers, suspense, espionage, traditional cozies, culinary, pet and even urban fantasy mysteries. If there’s a crime, we’re interested! You, of course, are our dedicated and loyal friends, whom we adore. And we have a request.

Over the last 25 years, we’ve introduced new authors to you, brought in big names to meet with adoring fans, reviewed countless books, and provided personalized and non-algorithmic service (and sometimes even cookies!) to our beloved friends.

And we want to continue on doing all those things. We love our shop and our books and our customers and our authors!

However, this digital age—and that pesky recession—hit us kind of hard. We need your help to build back to our former glory.

We want to be able to carry all the obscure books that you’ve come to treasure. We want to be the meeting place for both new and upcoming authors as well as old friends and big names to visit with fans and friends.

We’ve set up a GoFundMe account, and our target goal is $50,000. That’s an awful lot of money, we know, but if you can pitch in even a little, it’ll help a whole lot!

Our plan is to use your donations to make sure the rent is completely paid off, all our suppliers are happy, and to restore missing titles and depleted series to our shelves. Some books are hard to find, but we’re up to the task--with your help!

Our aim to is get to a stable financial footing so that we can continue to be the place where you can reliably find the books you want, as well as a resource to answer the questions you have. Should we massively exceed our goals, we’d love to look into establishing our own publishing house. Or maybe even (*gasp*) move the shop to a more accessible location!

We’ve got some nifty rewards to thank you for your gifts. We’ll put those in a second blog post, but we wanted to let you know what we’re up to, and how you can help.

Basically, we want to be here for you, and this is our way of getting our feet back under us.
Those “nifty” thank-you gifts—available to anyone contributing between $1 and $5,000--are revealed here. The money goes to a very good cause. The Seattle Mystery Bookshop, which last summer celebrated its first quarter-century in business (not long before the death of its founder, Bill Farley), is a popular stop for touring crime, mystery, and thriller authors. In addition to its well-packed shelves of new releases, the store boasts an abundance of classic and out-of-print works. It was there, for instance, that I finally found the 15 entries I’d been missing in Erle Stanley Gardner’s series of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam mysteries. Whenever I’m in the Pioneer Square area (which is, sadly, less often now that I don’t work in downtown Seattle), I make a point of stopping by the bookshop, if only to browse and see what other rare or curious finds might be available.

Again, click here to reach the bookshop’s GoFundMe page.

READ MORE:6 Meccas for Mystery Lovers” (The Lineup).

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Late Risers,” by Bernard Wolfe

(Editor’s note: This is the 134th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Bernard Wolfe’s satirical and allegorical novel The Late Risers couldn’t be read at a more appropriate time than now. What begins as a shovelful of dirt on the grave of Damon Runyon quickly becomes an examination of race and what constitutes the identity of an American—two issues that remain as contentious today as ever. First published in 1954 (and later reprinted as Everything Happens at Night), it’s still an entertaining book. At times ponderous, madcap, and preposterous, its balance between medium and message merits it being given another chance by readers.

The ostensible (and complicated) plot concerns efforts by Broadway talent agents and others to win their clients some ink in the trades, and most urgently, to procure for visiting Hollywood cowboy star Biff Jordan (“a Valentino in dungarees”) a hot date while he’s in New York City. The Late Risers’ time frame and locale are roughly the same as those for William S. Burroughs’s Junkie (I’d bet my bottom dollar that he and Wolfe encountered each other somewhere at the Crossroads of the World—they just had to!). But if readers are hoping for a cross-pollination between the rising Beat Generation and dying Broadway showbiz hucksters—like, say, Billy Rose or Walter Winchell conflated with Herbert Huncke or Lenny Bruce—they’ll be disappointed to find that the pastrami served in the delis of this era’s 42nd Street is not cured with marijuana smoke, though plenty a people do partake of pot in Wolfe’s tale. So then, why read this seemingly dated book?

Wolfe’s ability to entertain is clear and confirmed. As an encyclopedist he refers to a plethora of cultural references to give more depth to people, places, and things; but he also has the eye of a minimalist, capturing essentials with a simplicity guaranteed to please a sensibility that appreciates haiku-length phrasing containing a pith of truth. For instance, in these pages Bing Crosby is said to possess a “sports shirt personality,” and above New York is a “spittoon sky.” Despite extravagances such as “her eyes were full of handclaps” and “her face was a charity drive,” the results of squeezing something from nothing are plainly more amusing and poignant, and no one can do it in quite the way Wolfe can. Witness this oft-cited exchange between a Hollywood agent and his girlfriend as they encounter a young self-conscious carhop named Biff Jordan.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” the man finally asked.

“Six ways from Sunday,” the girl said.

“That,” the man said, “is a
shitkicker. Does calisthenics every time you look at him.”

“That’s a shitkicker to end shitkickers,” the girl said.

“Even his eyeballs blush,” the man said. “You look at him, his hands get like windmills. That’s a shitkicker for the connoisseur. That’s a
shitkicker’s shitkicker.”

“He introduces an entirely new dimension into shitkicking,” the girl said. “With him it becomes an art form, like ballet.”

“That,” the man said, “is shitkicking like Shakespeare would do it. Odets. De Mille.”

Their conversation puzzled Biff: they sounded like scientists trying to classify a bug.
Wolfe does have a message—just don’t be distracted by the old-school Broadway razzle-dazzle that most of his characters spew; there’s enough such patter here to give Guys and Dolls a run for its money. And, yeah, The Late Risers is at times wearing, and impatient readers might feel impelled to pick up their own shovel and give Wolfe a hand; but those who allow this book a chance to prove its value are eventually treated to a prescient vision and empathetic look at what it’s like to be a black man, circa the 1950s. Our tour guide is an African-American character with the name of Movement.

Movement is the go-to guy when hipper members of the Times Square crew need pot. “Rampart Street easy and Sugar Hill offhand,” he cuts a smooth figure, but not one of his own devising. He quotes Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (a kind of key to this book), wears Brooks Brothers suits, drives a Mercedes, sports an earring, and has a mentor in the wealthy Vanderbilt Bohlen, who’s a cross between John Hammond and Alan Lomax. Here’s where Wolfe, author of A Study of Race Relations in American Popular Culture, makes his insightful statement on race and America with the mind of an analyst and the soul of a poet.

Professor Wedemeyer is an intense and conflicted intellectual “caught between conjure and Das Kapital.” Dying of cancer, the character falls back to the primitive and asks friend and ghost-writer Don Kiefer to locate in New York City a voodoo witch doctor, “an anachronism pounding his herbs among the neons” in a last-ditch search for a cure. The Professor requests that the practitioner be a skilled black man, of course, because “This is not an area for the American initiative and self-help. Here we need the authorities with the know-how”—a backhanded compliment if ever there was one.

Kiefer enlists Movement in the search, but after combing the city they discover that anyone with any kind of voodoo ability is now gainfully employed in Detroit and out of the spell-casting business. So Movement takes on the role of shaman, and to keep everything authentic for the Professor, darkens his light skin with burnt cork. Anyone nodding off while reading this book would have to be jarred awake by the irony of that endeavor.

Movement is a fabrication. He got his name, his game, his savoir faire from the intellectual and arts patron Bohlen. Bohlen also taught Movement how to play the drums; a skill which, in less politically corrected times, one would think came naturally to Movement. Also, the ceremony Movement portrayed in his sham witch doctor performance was one he learned by listening to Bohlen’s record collection. People are not always who they seem to be in this book, and E pluribus unum, Movement discovers, is not as easy as it sounds. For African Americans who try to make their way into white American society, it can sometimes be forced on them. Beneath the cultivated façade, Movement is an angry man.

White Americans are “hyphenated,” he says. Bound by the identity of their heritage, they can never let go of the past and look ahead to achieve fruition as individuals and be a truly unified people, but at least they have something to work with. The African American has other problems. “Thanks to 330 meaningless years without a past and without a face,” writes Wolfe, “he’d been cut off from Africa as no white American had ever been cut off from Europe. So the Negro was the only 100 percent American—the only completely fluid, cosmic, all-at-once man.” Blacks have no identity, the argument goes, and this allows others to impose identities upon them. And with what might be the good, such as Bohlen’s tutelage, comes the bad, which is the humiliating experience Movement has of being stereotyped and hunted by predatory white women, of becoming an object for their fantasies of being taken by a “pirate,” a “bushman,” a mauling “night animal,” setting the clock back 330 years. For people with Movement’s intellect and sensitivity, this is a demeaning and dehumanizing situation.

The Late Risers will never be taught in literature classes, but credit is owed to Wolfe for the repertoire of devices he uses and the thematic depth he creates here. As for how and why Movement was given his name, and what his ultimate fate is, and the mutable fates of the huge cast of characters … well, readers will just have to pick up a copy of The Late Risers and find out those answers for themselves.

READ MORE:The Book You Have to Read: In Deep, by Bernard Wolfe,” by Steven Nester (The Rap Sheet).