Saturday, October 20, 2018

The “White” Stuff

I hesitate to admit this, but between my various writing responsibilities of late and the fact that I have been nursing a deep chest cold for the last week, I’d quite forgotten that a new adaptation of Wilkie CollinsThe Woman in White will debut tomorrow night (Sunday) on PBS-TV at 10 p.m. EST/9 CST. This five-part mystery series, shown originally on BBC One in Great Britain last spring, is set to run on Sunday nights through November 18.

Thankfully, Criminal Element’s Joe Bendel did not experience a memory lapse similar to my own. He previews the show’s plot in a post published this morning:
Anne Catherick is the “Woman in White.” She is sickly and as pale as her preferred wardrobe. Catherick is also very much afraid she will be forcibly returned to the Bedlam-like asylum she has just escaped from. Fortunately, dashing painter and art teacher Walter Hartright helps her elude her pursuers. Subsequently, he is struck by her resemblance to one of his new students, Laura Fairlie.

Of course, Hartright falls for the pretty Fairlie rather than her plainer but more resourceful and independent half-sister, Marian Halcombe. Unfortunately, Fairlie was promised in marriage by her father to the financially strapped Sir Percival Glyde, Baronet, who is determined to complete the wedding bargain so he can take control of the orphaned heiress’s fortune (a princely twenty-thousand pounds).

This is where the skullduggery really comes into play. It quickly becomes apparent Glyde does not have her best interests at heart. He also has good reason to permanently silence the fugitive Catherick, because she and her estranged mother are the only ones who know his scandalous secret. Not even Glyde’s sinister co-conspirator, Count Fosco, knows what the cash-poor Baronet is so desperate to keep hidden, but the Sicilian exile has his own shadowy history to worry about.
The story is quite a bit more complicated than that, as I recall, even though it’s been decades since I last read Collins’ 1859 “sensation novel” on which this small-screen production is based. There’s plenty of legal intrigue and suspense—enough so, that even someone like me, who has watched previous televised versions (one from 1966, the other from 1997) will want to tune in for this new adaptation.

Click here to watch the trailer for The Woman in White.

POSTSCRIPT: At least for the time being, the two-hour, 1997 TV version of The Woman in White can be watched on YouTube.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Unearthing Villainies of Yore

If my memory is correct, I was initially drawn to historical crime fiction when I was still a boy, back in the 1970s. It was then that a trio of small- and large-screen entertainments—the 1972-1973 NBC-TV private-eye series Banyon, the 1974 motion-picture Chinatown, and the 1976 NBC series City of Angels—charmed me with their gauzy but gritty portrayals of 1930s Los Angeles and made me curious to learn more about urban crime from earlier times. As I matured and turned more toward books to satisfy my hunger for crime fiction, my interests expanded, taking in not only hard-edged yarns set in the early 20th century, such as Philip Kerr’s March Violets (1989) and Max Allan CollinsTrue Detective (1983), but also Victorian-era whodunits on the order of Peter Lovesey’s Waxwork (1978) and the Sergeant Verity series by “Francis Selwyn” (aka Donald Thomas). My discovery of books by Umberto Eco, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Caleb Carr, Susanna Gregory, Charles Todd, Edward Marston, Rennie Airth, J. Sydney Jones, and Walter Mosley soon followed.

For a mystery lover and part-time historian like me, novels of murder and other misdeeds rooted in vivid yesteryears represented a pretty ideal reading combination.

British critic-author Barry Forshaw came to the historical mystery genre via a rather different route than mine, but wound up equally enamored of its accomplishments and potential. A longtime editor of Crime Time (both in its original magazine days and its current electronic incarnation), and former vice chair of the British Crime Writers’ Association, Forshaw has penned a variety of authoritative directories to crime, mystery, and thriller fiction over the years. Among those are British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia (2008), Death in a Cold Climate (2012), and last year’s American Noir, the fourth in a series of compact guides to criminous tales from around the world (following Nordic Noir [2013], Euro Noir [2014], and Brit Noir [2016].) His latest book, Historical Noir (Oldcastle/Pocket Essentials)—released last month in the States—is the fifth and probably final installment in that “Noir” series.

Historical Noir’s contents roll out chronologically, beginning with novels set in the Ancient World and continuing through the 1970s. As time moves forward, Forshaw focuses increasingly on the history of Great Britain, though there are ample mentions of works taking place elsewhere—in 1830s Istanbul, 19th-century New York City, 1920s Shanghai, pre-World War II Munich, 1940s Italy, and Soviet Russia. (A preview of Historical Noir’s range is found in this piece the author contributed to the blog Crime Fiction Lover.) Like Forshaw’s previous installments in the “Noir” series, this book is made up primarily of brief profiles of authors and the works for which they’re best recognized. In cases where a writer explores different epochs in different books, that’s noted. Additionally, Forshaw dashes into his mix crime-fiction films and TV shows, as well as abbreviated interviews with writers prominent in the genre (among them Candace Robb, L.C. Tyler, Matthew Pearl, Robert Ryan, Barbara Nadel, and Andrew Taylor).

This paperback isn’t a comprehensive guide to historical mystery fiction. At just over 200 pages long, it’s a volume to be leafed through at leisure and enjoyed, especially by folks who can claim minimal familiarity with the genre but are curious to learn more. Even knowledgeable readers, however, may find themselves surprised by Forshaw’s insights into the spectrum of historical mysteries currently available and the ways in which this genre has evolved.

I recently took the opportunity to ask Barry Forshaw, via e-mail, a number of questions related to Historical Noir, including about his personal experience with this mystery-fiction field, how he selected the authors about whom he writes in the book, and the growing number of “celebrity sleuths” appearing in crime fiction nowadays. The Q&A below has been edited a bit to enhance its readability.

J. Kingston Pierce: Have you long been a devotee of historical mysteries, or is this just an area in which you’ve dabbled for the purposes of writing a book? If the former is true, do you remember which book(s) got you hooked on this genre?

Barry Forshaw: Well, I’m no more a devotee of historical mysteries than any other genre, though—of course—I like them. I’m sure you’ll agree that enthusiasts such as you and I, Jeff, regard the whole crime/thriller genre as a broad church, and allow our enthusiasms to spread far and wide. As to which book might be said to have hooked me on the genre, that’s easy: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in William Weaver’s superb [1983 English] translation. Not only does it conjure an entire, richly drawn medieval world with tremendous vividness, it’s a book of ideas, hotly debated. I can understand, though, why so many people find it daunting—it’s not an easy read. And along with the Brother Cadfael novels of Ellis Peters, it inaugurated the “historical crime” genre as a specific, identifiable field—even though there had been many examples, not so named, beforehand. Bookshops now began to sport “Historical Crime” sections (“Historical Mysteries” in the U.S.) as a category description.

JKP: Oh yes, a couple of those previous examples of historical crime fiction that come to mind would be Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951) and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle (1978). But again, as you say, they didn’t carry the label.

(Left) Barry Forshaw

BF: The situation was rather similar to translated crime fiction. When I read the novels of Georges Simenon as a boy, I did not perceive them as “translated crime”—that became a specific genre more recently. The newspapers I’ve written for over the years would just ask me to cover individual authors from various countries (Britain, the U.S., France, Sweden, et al.) and eras; now the literary editors say, “What's new in the translated or historical crime field?” I think bookshops were a factor in the labeling process—they like to have specific sections to which they can point their customers. And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

JKP: So what’s your definition of “historical noir”? I ask this, because many of the authors mentioned in your new book don’t write stories that I’d consider especially dark. Did you call it Historical Noir simply to fit it in with the rest of your series?

BF: Your second sentence hits it on the nail. The fact that my series is called American Noir, Brit Noir, Nordic Noir, Euro Noir, and now Historical Noir is basically a marketing ploy by my publisher. I usually point out in the books that as a series title, “Noir” can simply be taken to mean “Crime”—there are a lot of authors in all the books that by no stretch of the imagination inhabit the dark world that noir implies. Alexander McCall Smith, for instance, told me he was taken aback at being featured in Brit Noir as he “couldn’t be less ‘Noir’!”

JKP: How much has the field of historical mysteries grown over the years? Do you have any metrics—or an educated guesses—as to what percentage of new crime, mystery, and thriller novels are now being published annually with historical settings?

BF: Metrics and figures are most definitely not my thing, so I’ll pass on the figures side of the question. But certainly the market share has grown in the UK because of the prize-winning success of such writers as C.J. Sansom and Andrew Taylor. There are also currently some formidable female talents ensuring that the genre is buoyant, including M.J. Carter, Antonia Hodgson, Kate Griffin, and S.J. Parris—all of whom I’m asked to do historical noir panels with. We have Anglo-Asian writers such as the prize-winning Abir Mukherjee with his Raj-set series—and there are American writers equally skilled in the genre, as you know.

JKP: Is it your sense that Americans and Brits are equally interested in historical mysteries, or is this genre more popular in one country than the other?

BF: Americans have had a long interest in the genre—possibly even longer than British readers. That’s only appropriate as (speaking more generally) it was an American who created most of the tropes of the crime-fiction genre—the great Edgar Allan Poe (who was an unhappy schoolboy in my part of London—I was at the unveiling of a bust of him over a restaurant on the site of his school).

JKP: But since U.S. history is short when compared with the history of Great Britain or many other countries, Americans interested in mysteries rooted in the long-ago past wind up reading stories that take place in your part of the world, so often penned by Brits.

BF: Yes, we have historical mysteries set in Roman Britain and the Tudor era. In fact, when I was a judge on the Crime Writers’ Association Historical Dagger Award panel, barely a week passed without a Tudor mystery popping through my letterbox. And certain useful historical figures began to appear again and again—such as the Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. It got very confusing, let me tell you—what was his function in Novel X or Novel Y? Is he good guy or a bad guy in this novel? …

The Tudor era was rich in possibilities—such a sprawling, colorful canvas for an author to draw on with the possibility of larger-than-life historical figures having walk-ons. And the Roman era has produced two splendid series: Lindsey Davis’ Falco books in the UK, and Steven Saylor’s Gordianus the Finder series in the U.S.

JKP: You’ve profiled a great many authors in this book. Yet there are numerous others missing, among them J. Robert Janes, Terence Faherty, Max Allan Collins, Kelli Stanley, Andrew Bergman, Martin Holmén, Kate Ross, Gaylord Dold, Loren D. Estleman, Andrew Hunt, Kris Nelscott, Bruce Alexander, Ed Gorman, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Francis Selwyn, Louis Bayard, Robert J. Randisi, Alex Grecian, Bill Pronzini, David Downing, Tasha Alexander, Robert Wilson, Michael Kurland, and … well, that’s quite enough. How did you go about deciding who to include and who to leave out?

BF: Space, as you will understand, was a key consideration, and I’ve also been frequently told that my books are used as shopping lists, so I tried to ensure that the majority of the authors I discussed were available. Many of the authors you mention—despite their skills—are not readily available (at least in the UK).

JKP: And how frustrating is it for someone, like me, to come along now that the book is in print and list all of the people you didn’t mention? I bet I’m not the first to do so.

BF: I always flinch in advance from people saying—as you just did—“Why didn’t you include X or Y?” My pleas about space considerations generally fall on deaf ears. Also people relish pointing out omissions—hell, I'm as guilty as anyone else. Even J. Kingston Pierce!

JKP: On the other hand, I did make some author discoveries by leafing through Historical Noir. For instance, I hadn’t previously been familiar with the works of Armand Cabasson, Sara Conway, Pablo de Santis, or A.C. Koning. Did you, too, become acquainted with some new names while assembling this work?

BF: As well as writing for such UK newspapers as the Financial Times and The Guardian, I’m asked to chair a lot of events for places such as the Institut Français and the Italian Cultural Institute—getting to meet writers such as Armand Cabasson and Pierre Lemaitre, and asking them questions on stage (in English, not my woeful French) was a useful entree into the world of such books. And the novels of new authors are sent to me by the bushel—it’s a bloody hard job keeping up. But, usefully, there’s a freemasonry of the London crime critics—we swap notes at our meals on new discoveries.

JKP: You call C.J. Sansom, creator of the Matthew Shardlake series, “the gold standard for historical crime fiction.” In what respects are his novels exemplars of this field? And which other historical mystery writers do you think rank at least near him in stature?

BF: Many authors have vaunting ambition, but their ambition is not actually matched by their reach. In C.J. Sansom’s case, it most unquestionably is. His books sport a Dickensian richness of character and an evocative sense of place. As to the second part of your question, while I could name several maladroit contemporary crime writers (though I’ll be charitable and avoid doing so), the level of achievement in historical mysteries field is generally high—I can't remember when I last read a really bad book in the field. Although in my days as a judge for the Historical Dagger Award, there were certainly several novels that both I and my fellow judges agreed were damned lucky to be published.

JKP: Who else, in your opinion, are consistently dependable or creative historical mystery writers—either living or not?

BF: Apart from the names listed above, there are wonderfully entertaining writers such as Ray Celestin, Lyndsay Faye, Alan Furst, and the late Philip Kerr’s highly accomplished Bernie Gunther series. And your country’s Dennis Lehane has contributed mightily to the genre. Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is a key novel in the field. Current talents of note? The excellent Imogen Robertson, William Ryan, William Shaw—oh, and the first Arkady Renko books by Martin Cruz Smith.

JKP: While other subgenres of crime and thriller fiction continue to be relatively male-dominated, such as hard-boiled detective fiction and spy fiction, the field of historical mysteries seems better balanced between male and female authors. How is this genre richer as a result of women contributing to it?

BF: It is a field in which women excel. One British writer in particular (who I mentioned before), Imogen Robertson [Theft of Life, etc.] is a constant delight, as the whole of history is her playground—and one of the pleasures of her books is not knowing which era and settings she will choose next. I’m not sure one can identify a specific male or female ethos in the field—for instance, I mentioned above Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor, whose takes on ancient Rome have much in common.

JKP: A number of historical mysteries in recent years have cast as their protagonists “celebrity sleuths,” real people—such as Humphrey Bogart, Mark Twain, Isaac Newton, Bram Stoker, Eleanor Roosevelt, and even Groucho Marx—who demonstrate unexpected crime-solving skills, at least in fiction. How do you feel about this trend?

BF: You want the unvarnished truth? I have a real problem with this subgenre. Giles Brandreth, for instance, has Oscar Wilde solving mysteries. How did he have time when holding London spellbound with his plays—or his visits to the capital’s fleshpots that did him such damage? If we are to accept them as sleuths, the day-job for celebrities always gets in the way. Bram Stoker, for instance, was not just writing Dracula—he was working flat out in the theater. Which is why I have a distinct preference for fictitious historical sleuths.

JKP: Your previous books in the “Noir” series have devoted separate sections to films/TV series and, in American Noir, to author interviews. Yet you mixed all those components together in Historical Noir. Why the formatting change? And are you intending to carry on this blending of components in future series entries?

BF: Just to keep things fresh for myself. There’s nothing worse for a writer than to settle into rigid routine—I’m sure you know what I mean. One must ring the changes.

JKP: This leads to the question: What do you have planned for your next installment in this wonderful series of “Noir” guides?

BF: I’m often asked this question, but I think that the five books I’ve done so far cover pretty well all I wanted say about their various fields. What can I do next? Future Noir? Finding the crime elements in Philip K. Dick?

JKP: As you’ve told me, you are currently working on a non-fiction book called Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide. What will that publication encompass? What are your intentions with it? And how will it differ from your various other guides to this genre we all love so much? When might this next book finally reach bookshops?

BF: Everything! Every country. Every era, from Chandler and Christie through to James Lee Burke and Sara Paretsky. Every genre, every language, film, TV—making sure I don’t repeat elements from my earlier books. It’s to be published (if I finish it—and I will) sometime in 2019.

JKP: Beyond your labors on the Pocket Essentials guides and penning other books, what else are you up to nowadays? I know you write a monthly review column for The Guardian, continue to have some hand in the Crime Time Web site, and threaten to become ubiquitous at UK crime-fiction festivals. But what else occupies you?

BF: Apart from the newspapers I write for (along with broadcasting duties), I’m kept busy by the number of chairing author events I’m asked to do here and abroad. I particularly enjoy doing them—and my favorite part is when I know I’ve asked the right questions and then just sit back so the author can provide a witty or intelligent response. I also emcee the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards dinners, the Oscars of the British crime-fiction field. Oh, and I provide to-camera extras for various Blu-rays—not just crime, although that is my main field (I’m also an enthusiast for horror and arthouse movies). It’s useful when doing the latter if I can remember my meetings with authors or directors—Eddie Bunker, for instance, when I was working on the extras for Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, or Roger Corman for The St. Valentine's DayMassacre. And as a very young journo, I once met Alfred Hitchcock!

JKP: I know little about your personal life. Where did you grow up, and where were you educated? Do you live in London or elsewhere?

BF: Originally from the city of the Beatles, Liverpool; moved to London at 20. It was the only place to be if you wanted to work in journalism (that was my perception, at least). I still love London but have vague thoughts of moving somewhere bucolic—but that will probably never happen. I’m addicted to the buzz of great cities: London, New York, Paris. Although I don’t get to New York as often as I used to—I worked for the American publisher Abrams, and one of the best parts of that job was the visits to the Big Apple. I always visited the cavernous Strand bookshop—a wonderland!

JKP: Finally, what’s this I hear about your having once been an illustrator? How did that come about, and what did it entail? Do you still keep your hand in the art world?

BF: I was a UK comics illustrator for eight years—I even treasure a letter from Stan Lee, sort of offering me a job when I was 20—but only if I moved to America. I was ready to do so at the time, but didn’t—I often think of the direction my life would have taken if I'd said yes. As for keeping my hand in with illustration—sadly, I fear I’ve lost my mojo in that regard. Any creative instincts I might have are now thankfully slaked by the writing!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

PaperBack: “Footsteps in the Night”

Part of a series honoring the late author and blogger Bill Crider.

Footsteps in the Night, by Dolores Hitchens (Permabooks, 1962). Cover illustration by Harry Bennett.

Say Good Night to Midnight

Today brings sad news from crime-fiction publisher Midnight Ink. Acquisitions editor Terri Bischoff posted the following short message this morning on her Facebook page:
As some of you may have heard, Midnight Ink will be shutting its doors after the Spring/Summer 2019 season. That means a few of us, notably [editors] Nicole [Nugent], Sandy [Sullivan], and myself, will be looking for new employment.

I want to take this opportunity to thank all my authors and agents for their hard work over the last nine years. I count so many of you as my friends and I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of my publishing career in crime fiction. You are my extended family and I appreciate all the connections and friendships over the last nine years.

I’m still in a little bit of shock. I didn’t know this was coming. I’m sure there will be much activity and a lot of questions in the near future. I will answer as best I can.
Although Bischoff—who’d previously owned a mystery bookstore—joined Midnight Ink during the fall of 2009, the company had been launched four years earlier, in February 2005, as the first fiction imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide, a New Age publisher headquartered in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the course of the last 13 years, it has released both “medium-boiled” and “soft-boiled” mysteries, police procedurals, private-eye tales, historical cozies, works of suspense, and assorted other works. Among its myriad authors are Jess Lourey, Brendan DuBois, G.M. Malliet, Steve Hockensmith, Catriona McPherson, E.J. Cooperman and Jeff Cohen, Sue Ann Jaffarian, Kellye Garrett, Keith Raffel, J.D. Allen, Gwen Florio, Leonard Goldberg, Patricia Smiley, and Bill Cameron. A catalogue of Midnight Ink’s forthcoming—and final—titles can be found here.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Revue of Reviewers, 10-15-18

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

No Tricks, Just Treats

There are still a couple of weeks to go yet before Halloween, but Janet Rudolph has already posted, in Mystery Fanfare, an updated list of crime and mystery novels linked to that annual celebration.

Included among the lot are The Pumpkin Killer, by Stacey Alabaster; Ghost of a Potion, by Heather Blake; The Witchfinder, by Loren D. Estleman; Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, by Harry Kemelman; Verse of the Vampyre, by Diana Killian; Witches’ Bane, by Susan Wittig Albert; and Dance of the Scarecrows, by Ray Sipherd. If you’re short of reading ideas this All Hallows’ Eve, simply click here.

Let’s Make This Quick

• I haven’t yet read Lou Berney’s new novel, November Road, a historical thriller tied to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However, it is already slated for movie adaptation. As Deadline Hollywood reports, Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Solo: A Star Wars Story) “will write and direct, and will produce the film with Shane Salerno in a co-production between Kasdan Pictures and The Story Factory. The producers intend to fast-track the project, and for it to be Kasdan’s next film. Distributors are circling and that part of the deal should be made shortly.”

• Moving from the big screen to the small one, I see in The Killing Times that former West Wing co-star Rob Lowe will be leading the cast of a six-part ITV crime drama called Wild Bill, set in the East Midlands county of Lincolnshire, England. He’ll play Bill Hixon, a “high-flying U.S. police chief” who takes charge of the local police force, based in the port town of Boston. “But Bill discovers the people of Boston are just as smart-mouthed, cynical, and difficult to impress as he is,” writes The Killing Times. “They don’t suffer fools, authority, or algorithms gladly. And the man [Hixon] who’s spent his life keeping the messiness of human intimacy at arm’s length is reluctantly propelled into frontline policing and forced to reconsider his relationship with those closest to him.” The Hollywood Reporter says, “Filming will take place around London and in Lincolnshire from November 2018.” There’s no word yet on when Wild Bill might be ready for viewing.

• “What makes Columbo the greatest TV detective?”

• It’s always interesting to learn how authors organize their books. Idiosyncrasy is more often the rule than the exception, as Emily Temple explains in this piece for Literary Hub. James Dickey, for instance, was a strict alphabetizer. But “Susan Sontag arranged her books ‘by subject or, in the case of literature, by language and chronologically. The Beowulf to Virginia Woolf principle.’ But never alphabetically.” My own books, in case you’re interested, are divided first by category (all of the crime fiction arranged in one room of my house, history in two others, etc.), and then by author according to my preferences.

• In this essay for CrimeReads, Toronto novelist Lisa Gabriele (The Winters) reassess Daphne du Maurier’s famous 1938 novel, Rebecca, in light of Donald Trump’s presidency.

Some good news for book hoarders: “[N]ew research confirms that people who grow up with books at home tend to have higher reading comprehension and better mathematical and digital communication skills. But how many books is enough to make a difference? The magic number seems to be above 80, according to a team of researchers led by senior sociology lecturer Joanna Sikora of Australian National University. Those who had around 80 books at home tended to have average scores for literacy—defined as ‘the ability to read effectively to participate in society and achieve personal goals’—while owning fewer than 80 books was associated with below-average literacy. Literacy continued to improve as the number of books increased to about 350, at which point the literacy rates remained steady.” Hmm. I’d guess that my parents had several hundred books on their shelves (far fewer than the many thousands I own), so I got lucky.

• For The New York Times, artist Ross MacDonald maps out some of the Los Angeles sites familiar from noir fiction, both old and new.

• And it might be best to put on a sweater before reading this story: Swedish author Susanne Jansson selects “five eerie, atmospheric thrillers” set in chilly European climes.

Friday, October 12, 2018

The Book You Have Read: “A Dram of Poison,”
by Charlotte Armstrong

(Editor’s note: This is the 158th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books. Today’s contribution comes from Washington, D.C., resident Erica Wright. She’s the author of three mystery novels starring private investigator Kat Stone: The Red Chameleon (2014), The Granite Moth (2015), and The Blue Kingfisher, which will be released later this month by Polis Books. Wright has also penned two poetry collections and is the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine. In her note to me, explaining how she came to be interested in Charlotte Armstrong’s 12th novel—the subject of her essay below—Wright explained, “I bought A Dram of Poison because the protagonist is a poetry professor, and I thought it might be fun to see if I recognized myself at all.”)

For an Edgar Award-winning novel, A Dram of Poison (1956) is light on crime. In fact, the only known infraction is petty theft. Yet Charlotte Armstrong managed to create a nuanced and at times breath-stealing story out of a missing bottle labeled 333. It takes a steady hand to set up the pieces for this novel’s crisis, a multi-page pursuit that squeezes a growing—and charming—cast of characters into a Chrysler DeSoto.

In some ways, A Dram of Poison follows a neat three-act structure. In Act One, a mild-mannered poetry professor takes pity on a colleague’s daughter when she loses her father and has nowhere to turn. What starts as a charity project turns into something more interesting, and 55-year-old Kenneth Gibson proposes that 33-year-old Rosemary James become his wife. His strictly platonic plan swims along with surprising success. Rosie grows stronger, and Gibson hardly recognizes the woman he invited into his life. It quickly becomes apparent that Gibson has grown fond of her and maybe even loves her. The central question of the first third of this mystery is not “Who done it?” but rather “What makes someone fall in love?” Indeed, the start of A Dram of Poison is almost tender; but of course we know their Eden cannot last, no matter how much time Rosie spends tending their new garden.

If this novel were a romance, it would end after the couple’s first kiss outside a fancy restaurant on a rainy night. But because we know this is noir, the couple must climb into their ancient car, must try to make their way home despite the weather, and must unfortunately slam headfirst into another vehicle. The accident leaves Rosie with a few bumps and bruises, but Gibson is badly injured. In Act Two, his sister arrives and, while well-meaning, disrupts the gentle arrangement that Gibson and Rosie enjoyed. Most notably, she suggests that the age difference makes it impossible for Rosie to truly love her husband, and wouldn’t she prefer the handsome young widower next door? Gibson spirals and eventually decides to kill himself so that his wife can be happy. He steals some poison, stores it in an olive oil bottle, and promptly loses it.

In Act Three, a novel that could be described as domestic becomes a suspenseful hunt for the missing poison. Gibson, Rosie, their neighbor, a bus driver, a society matron, an artist, and his muse join the search one at a time, each offering their own unique commentary on the events that have occurred. Fear that somebody might be killed accidentally leads to a few unwelcome truths coming out before the satisfying conclusion of this tale.

A Dram of Poison is surprising from start to finish, defying genre expectations at every turn. The lively tone is laced with pathos, a poignant sympathy for the poetry professor—also a veteran of two wars—who is better at making sacrifices than making himself happy. The central mystery might not be who has the poison, but rather something more philosophical. Armstrong returns again and again to the theme of instinct versus reason and which is more powerful. Gibson’s sister argues convincingly that “[p]eople will act from the blood and animal residue.” With this worldview, she believes that Rosie crashed the car on purpose—subconsciously of course, but no less dramatically—in order to be free of her husband. A neat trick that Armstrong pulls off is convincing Gibson of this possibility, while any observant reader can see that the crash was indeed an accident. Moreover, Rosie is in love with her husband, marriage of convenience be damned.

His veins full of Shakespeare and Catullus, Gibson believes that “a man could put intelligence and intuition against odds and make progress.” That is, people can fight against their baser instincts, especially when armed with education. Or, as the bus driver they meet neatly explains, “How can you read poetry and not notice the universe?” As a poetry editor, I’ll admit that it is a question that appeals to me. On a bone-deep level, I believe that art makes us more aware of the world, even helps us understand it a little, and I suspect that Armstrong believed this, as well.

Armstrong’s body of work is impressive and includes 29 novels alongside short stories, plays, and screenplays. In addition to receiving the Edgar Award for A Dram of Poison, she was nominated for that honor on five additional occasions, the last time being in 1966, three years before she died. Interest in her work was has been revived, due in part to Sarah Weinman’s 2015 collection, Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & ’50s, which included Armstrong’s Mischief (1950). In a collaboration between Open Road Integrated Media and The Mysterious Press, Armstrong’s books are also being reissued with gorgeous, updated covers.

The continued popularity of her writing makes sense given her intriguing plots and sharp insights into human character. A Dram of Poison combines romance, suspense, and philosophy to create a story that feels, yes, a bit quaint at times, but also as relevant today as it was six decades ago. As I refresh the New York Times homepage for the fifth time today, I see myself in the bus driver’s warning: “You know who is limited? Fella who reads nothing but the newspaper, watches nothing but his own p’s and q’s, plus TV in the evening, works for nothing but money, buys nothing with the money but a car or a steak, does what he thinks the neighbors do, and don’t notice the universe.” A philosophy of looking up, of looking beyond our screens, is a philosophy I can embrace. All the better if our gaze falls upon a poem or a story.

READ MORE:Perilous Discoveries: The Feminist Murder-Mysteries of Charlotte Armstrong,” by Imran Khan (PopMatters).

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Gorman and Anthony Pass On

In recent days, we’ve been alerted to the deaths of two people quite well-known in the mystery-fiction community. The first was Mary Alice Gorman, who—with her husband, Richard Goldman—founded and owned the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. She died on October 9, aged 74. As Mystery Fanfare’s Janet Rudolph remembers, Gorman “was a great supporter of the mystery community and a mentor, role model, and friend to so many.” The Gumshoe Site’s Jiro Kimura adds that Gorman and Goldman “were awarded the 2010 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America as the owners of the Mystery Lovers Bookshop for ‘outstanding achievements and leadership contributions to the mystery genre.’” The store was purchased in 2018 by Oakmont residents Tara Goldberg-DeLeo and Kristy Bodnar.

Also having passed away, in her case at 92 years of age, is London-born British author Evelyn Anthony (aka Evelyn Bridgett Patricia Ward-Thomas). According to The Gumshoe Site,
She started her writing career after World War Two with short stories for women’s magazines. She wrote her first novel, Imperial Highness (Museum Press; U.S. title: Rebel Princess, Crowell), in 1953. After that she produced nearly a book a year, and in 1967 she switched from historical romances to spy thrillers, including The Tamarind Seed (Hutchinson, 1971), which was turned into the 1974 movie starring Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif. She created her series character, Davina Graham, a British spy during the Cold War, who appeared in four novels starting with The Defector (Hutchinson, 1980) and ending with The Company of Saints (Hutchinson, 1983 ...).
Editor Kimura says Anthony “died peacefully on September 25 at her home in Essex, England.”

READ MORE:Evelyn Anthony Obituary,” by Danuta Kean
(The Guardian).

It’s True, It’s “True”

We finally have a firm premiere date for Season Three of True Detective. According to The Killing Times, this latest version of the anthology crime drama will debut on HBO-TV in the United States on Sunday, January 13, 2019. Expectations are that it will begin broadcasting on Sky Atlantic in Britain soon thereafter.

Monday, October 08, 2018

The Story Behind the Story: “Charlesgate Confidential,” by Scott Von Doviak

(Editor’s note: This is the 81st entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from Scott Von Doviak, author of the new novel Charlesgate Confidential (Hard Case Crime). Although he was born in Maine, Von Doviak has lived in Austin, Texas, since the mid-1990s. A former film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he now covers TV-related subjects for The Onion’s entertainment Web site, A.V. Club. He has penned three previous non-fiction books (including 2012’s If You Like The Terminator ..., but Charlesgate Confidential—about which he provides some background below—is his first published novel.)

It starts with the building. The Charlesgate of the title is a real building in Boston’s Back Bay, originally a hotel catering to the upper crust when it opened in 1891. Designed by architect J. Pickering Putnam, it’s an unusual building in a mix of styles, with Gothic spires and the faces of cherubs peeking out from the ornate exterior walls. Almost from the beginning, the Charlesgate had a haunted reputation that persists to this day.

My own fascination with the building dates back to the mid-1980s. After the hotel fell on hard times, it was sold to Boston University and, later, Emerson College as student housing. I was assigned to Charlesgate Hall when I arrived as an Emerson student in 1985 and lived there for the next three years, excluding summer vacations. Many of my friends have ghost stories from those days, but I have none. Still, my time in Charlesgate stuck with me through the years, long after Emerson sold the building and it became luxury condos.

I wanted to write something that would incorporate the different eras of the building, but I wasn’t interested in telling a ghost story. One early attempt was a screenplay incorporating time travel, but I didn’t get far with that one. I love the city of Boston and I love Boston crime novels and movies. I decided to write a crime story that would play out in three time periods—the 1940s, the 1980s, and the present day. The ’40s era would evoke the postwar film noir genre, with the Charlesgate having fallen into the hands of the mob. In the ’80s section, I revisit my own time in the building, incorporating autobiographical elements into the story. The present day would tie it all together and bring resolution, in part through a police procedural. Now all I needed was a big crime to sustain it all.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed in the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, by two men dressed as police officers. A security guard on duty let them into the building, after which he and his co-worker were bound with duct tape. The intruders spent the next 81 minutes collecting 13 works of art, and they weren’t gentle about it; masterworks by Rembrandt and Vermeer were slashed from their frames. The art, now valued at half a billion dollars, has never been recovered. The thieves have never been identified.

This unsolved crime was perfect for my purposes, except for one thing: I needed it to happen in the 1940s. Rather than concocting my own fictional art heist, I plucked the real thing out of 1990 and dropped it into 1946, using as many details of the actual crime as I could. (Isabella Stewart Gardner, who died in 1924, had stipulated in her will that her collection remain unaltered for the life of the museum, which is why empty frames now hang where the stolen art was once displayed.) I now had my crime, but rather than start my novel with the heist and proceed chronologically from there, I decided to deploy a more unusual structure that would make the novel more fun for me to write (and, I hoped, to read) … if only it would work.

So: The first chapter I wrote took place in 1946 and dealt with the robbery of a mob-run poker game on the top floor of the Charlesgate. At chapter’s end, the dealer is left fuming and plotting to find the masked men who took the loot. Who were they? I didn’t know and didn’t care, because now I was off to 1986 and a Ouija board séance held in a dorm room in the same building. Since I identified most closely with the 1986 storyline, I decided to write those chapters in the first-person, from the point of view of journalism student Tommy Donnelly. The third chapter took place in the present day (which was 2014 at the time), depicting the murder of a real-estate agent inside one of the condos for sale in the Charlesgate building. After that it was back to 1946, and so on through the rotation of these three timelines.

The Charlesgate, in Boston’s historic Back Bay neighborhood, is now filled with luxury condominiums.

How it would all connect I didn’t know at the time. I had no spreadsheets or note cards tacked to the wall connected by string, like a TV detective hunting a serial killer. All I knew was that I wanted what at first appeared to be three unrelated story lines to come together, piece by piece and twist by twist, as the novel unfolded. By the end, everything would snap into place like a Rubik’s Cube, and you’d have the complete picture. I’m not sure what made me think I could pull this off, since this was my first novel, but I had the time of my life writing it anyway.

One of the connecting elements, aside from the Charlesgate building, was the rising and falling fortunes of the Red Sox, always burbling in the background during baseball season in Boston. As a huge Red Sox fan, I am very familiar with their colorful—and, until recently, tormented—history, and it was great fun to weave it through the background of my characters’ lives. Not all of it was pleasant to relive—even casual baseball fans of a certain age will recall the ball rolling through Bill Buckner’s legs in game six of the 1986 World Series—but at least I had the solace of three recent world championships to see me through.

When I finished the book, I could picture it wrapped in one of those pulpy retro covers that Hard Case Crime specializes in, but had little hope I could actually make that happen. After a negative experience with one agent, I was ready to put Charlesgate in a drawer and move on, but decided on a whim to e-mail Hard Case publisher/editor Charles Ardai directly with my pitch. It turned out to be the best decision I could have made; he asked me to send it along, and a few days later he e-mailed me the most glowing acceptance letter imaginable. It’s extremely rare that an unsolicited manuscript receives a publication offer, so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that tactic, but it worked for me. Now Charlesgate Confidential is on shelves, wrapped in one of those classic Hard Case covers, with a gorgeous painting by Paul Mann and a blurb from Stephen King. And it all started with a building.

READ MORE:Interview with Scott Von Doviak,” by Scott
Montgomery (MysteryPeople).

Bonding with Spies

Congratulations to The Spy Command, which today turns 10 years old. I know how much work goes into keeping a blog active and interesting for even a few years, so a decade’s work is nothing to sneeze at.

As managing editor Bill Koenig recalls, The Spy Command was inaugurated in 2008 as The HMSS Weblog, an offshoot of the James Bond-obsessed Webzine Her Majesty’s Secret Servant (founded in 1997). By the next year, Koenig was the blog’s primary contributor, and in 2014, Her Majesty’s Secret Servant folded up shop. The blog was rechristened The Spy Command in February 2015. It remains one of the best online sources of information about Agent 007, though Koenig also writes occasionally about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Hawaii Five-O, two TV shows in which he’s particularly interested.

If you aren’t already a loyal follower of The Spy Command, it’s definitely time you became one.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Revue of Reviewers, 10-7-18

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.