Thursday, August 27, 2015

Gratefully Surrounded by Books

Patti Abbott, the author of Concrete Angel, kindly invited me recently to participate in her ongoing series about writers and their bookshelves. Each person is asked to respond to several questions, one of which elicited the following answer from me:
Who is your favorite fictional character?

This is certainly your most challenging question. I’m going to go with Nate Heller, Max Allan Collins’ Chicago-based private eye. Much of the reason has to do with Heller’s proximity to the famous and infamous characters of the 20th century. I’d love to have met Al Capone, Sally Rand, Bugsy Siegel, Bobby Kennedy, and Amelia Earhart, as Heller has over the years.
You will find the full post in Abbott’s Pattinase blog.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Now Claiming the Neddies

During a gathering this last weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival, the winners of the 2015 Ned Kelly Awards for crime and mystery fiction were announced. This marked the 20th anniversary of those prizes. Shotsmag Confidential lists the victors.

Best Crime Novel: Eden, by Candice Fox (Transworld)

Also nominated: Sweet One, by Peter Docker (Fremantle Press); A Murder Unmentioned, by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press); Crucifixion Creek, by Barry Maitland (Text); Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty (Profile); and Present Darkness, by Malla Nunn (Atria)

Best First Crime Novel: Quota, by Jock Serong (Text)

Also nominated: King of the Road, by Nigel Bartlett (Random House); What Came Before, by Anna George (Penguin); and Chasing the Ace, by Nicholas J. Johnson (Simon & Schuster)

Best True Crime: This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial, by Helen Garner (Text)

Also nominated: The Fall, by Amy Dale (Random House); The Family Court Murders, by Debi Marshall (Random House); He Who Must Be Obeid, by Kate McClymont and Linton Besser (Random House); The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay, by David Murray (Random House); and The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, by Liam Pieper (Hamish Hamilton)

S.D. Harvey Short Story (with Kill Your Own Darlings): “Short Term People,” by Andrea Gillum

Also nominated: “A Watched Pot,” by Aoife Clifford; “Prisoner's Dilemma,” by Stephen Gray; “Sweetie,” by Grace Heyer; “Daddy Played the Trumpet,” by Adriane Howell; and “Roux’s Sister,” by Darcy-Lee Tindale

In addition, the Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Peter Lawrence, who--according to AustCrime--for “18 or so years … single-handedly [ran] the Ned Kelly Awards,” until the Australian Crime Writers Association “stepped in to help.”

Monday, August 24, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Every Night I Dream of Hell (Mantle), the fifth novel from award-winning Scottish author Malcolm Mackay, returns readers to the murky environs of Glasgow’s underworld, where Nate Colgan--who used to be merely “smart muscle” for the notorious Jamieson organization, before some of its most powerful members were incarcerated or else killed--has now been promoted to “security consultant.” His managerial skills and intelligence will be put to the test promptly, as a new cadre of criminals, supposedly hailing from south of the border, begins challenging the Jamieson forces for dominance, threatening a local war. Colgan needs to find out who’s behind that other gang. At the same time, he must fend off a detective inspector who sees in the brewing rivalry an opportunity to further expand his record of success, and also try to determine the reason for the sudden reappearance of his young daughter’s scheming mother. The chance to learn more about Colgan, one of Mackay’s continuing characters, is certainly welcome. Allegiance, by Kermit Roosevelt (Regan Arts), is a historical legal thriller built around President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision in 1942, not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to deport and incarcerate tens of thousands of Japanese-descended Americans who had been living on the West Coast of the United States. Protagonist Caswell “Cash” Harrison is a young law student of upper-class Philadelphia stock, who, after being rejected for military service because he failed his physical, signs up instead to clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. In that capacity, he unearths what might be nefarious efforts by some powerful, avaricious players to influence the Court’s decision making. Amid the violence and clues to conspiracies, Roosevelt--a professor of law and the great-great-grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt--shows us Harrison’s growing disillusionment with the profession he had for so long sought.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Madigan Back on His Beat

Richard Widmark’s only TV series, Madigan (1972-1973), shown under the umbrella of The NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, was based on his 1968 big-screen picture of the same name. The series had its attractions, but it was considerably less popular than the original film, generating only a half-dozen 90-minute episodes--which explains why it has never enjoyed a formal DVD release in the United States.

However, some kind and most generous soul has just posted all six of those Madigan eps on YouTube (uploaded, apparently, from a French source, since they all feature French-translated opening titles). You can watch the first one, “The Manhattan Beat,” right here. There are links from that same page to the remaining five installments.

Since YouTube is notorious for expunging copyrighted material from its site, my advice is to watch all of Madigan now, or else download the episodes to your computer as soon as you can.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Bullet Points: Debuts and Comebacks Edition

• It sounds as if the film version of Erik Larson’s terrific 2003 non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, might finally be getting off the ground. According to The Wrap, that picture--to be directed by Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as serial killer H.H. Holmes--spent many years “in development” at Warner Bros., but has now “found a new home at Paramount, which just won a bidding war for the high-profile project.”

• With Season 4 of Longmire set to debut on Netflix (not A&E) come Thursday, September 10, two promotional clips have recently been released. You can find them in the Crimespree Magazine blog.

• “Forgotten books” reviewers, take note. Author Patti Abbott, who long ago organized the Web-wide weekly celebration of “books we love but might have forgotten over the years,” has proposed another theme for interested contributors. “I am suggesting we review Ed McBain books for Friday, October 2nd …,” she writes in her blog. “Of course, any books reviewed are fine. But let’s especially honor one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century.” That sounds like a good idea.

• Can this be true? Brad Pitt was Guy Ritchie’s first choice to portray American spy Napoleon Solo in the new Man from U.N.C.L.E. film? Fortunately, Pitt told him to “piss off.”

• Still on the subject of U.N.C.L.E., author Linwood Barclay (Broken Promise) writes in the Orion Books blog, The Murder Room, about how the original 1964-1968 NBC-TV series “changed my life.”

• Anyone who’d like to participate in Criminal Element’s next regular short-story contest, “The M.O.,” has until next Friday, August 28, to prepare a submission. “We’re seeking short, original crime stories of 1,000-1,500 words around the loose theme of ‘Lesson Learned,’” the blog explains. Click here for additional information.

• Meanwhile, submissions are now being accepted for the 2016 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. As Dixon Hill explains in SleuthSayers, “If you’re an unpublished novelist and can manage to submit a manuscript of at least 40,000 words, featuring a murder or other serious crime, by December 14, 2015, then you might like to enter. The winner gets a contract and 10 grand advance against royalties. You’ll find the publisher’s details here.”

• Finally, you have until December 31, 2015, to enter the competition for the 2016 Pinckley Prize for Debut Novel. As explained here, “First novels by a North American woman published by an American publisher during the 2015 calendar year are eligible for the Pinckley Prize for Debut Novel. Submissions should include a $25 entry fee and 3 copies of the book. Submissions may be sent to Pinckley Prize, c/o Pelican Publishing, 1000 Burmaster St., Gretna, LA, 70053. The Pinckley Prize for Achievement in Crime Fiction will be selected by a jury only. Submissions for the Debut Novel Prize will not be considered unless accompanied by an entry fee.”

• I’m very pleased to hear that “President Barack Obama will travel to New Orleans on Aug. 27 to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.” It’s broadly assumed he will do better in addressing that disaster than George W. Bush did in September 2005, when he visited the Crescent City himself to promise “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Bush’s speech, of course, was given at a time when his administration’s incompetent response to the hurricane was drawing criticism from all quarters. If you would like to refresh your memory on the sequence of events just before and immediately after Katina’s devastating landfall, check out this timeline from The Guardian.

• Less happy news: Anthony Horowitz, British author of the new James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis--which is due out in stores on September 8--won’t be doing a U.S. tour to promote that book after all. As blogger John Cox explains in his blog, The Book Bond, “U.S. tours have become a rare thing for Bond authors these days. Only Charlie Higson and Jeffery Deaver have brought their Bonds to the U.S. in recent years. Horowitz had listed a section for ‘U.S. Events’ on his official website, but that is now gone.” He does, however, have a number of UK events lined up.

Also from The Book Bond:CBR (Comic Book Resources) has revealed eight variant covers for the upcoming first issue of VARGR, Dynamite’s new six-part James Bond graphic novel series by Warren Ellis with art by Jason Masters.”

• Author Bill Crider sure has received a heap of attention in the blogosphere lately. It must be because he has a new Sheriff Dan Rhodes novel available, titled Between the Living and the Dead (Minotaur). Lesa Holstine briefly reviews the book here, while Marshal Zeringue first asks Crider how he’d cast a movie from this 22nd Rhodes outing, and then inquires as to what Crider has been reading recently.

• I am always on the lookout for new sources of old TV films and series. So I was delighted recently to discover Truetvmovies. I haven’t yet ordered any DVDs from that site, but there are a few features I have my eyes on for the future, including: Jake Spanner, Private Eye (1989, adapted from L.A. Morse’s The Old Dick), starring Robert Mitchum and Ernest Borgnine; Crime Club (1975), starring Eugene Roche and Robert Lansing; Wild Times (1980), starring Bruce Boxleitner; Mallory: Circumstantial Evidence (1976), starring Raymond Burr; and The Lawyer (1970), the pilot for Barry Newman’s 1974-1976 legal drama, Petrocelli.

Watch a film exploring Dashiell Hammett’s San Francisco.

• Speaking of Hammett (which for me seems like a regular occupation), I didn’t see the TV dramatization of his 1929 Continental Op novelette, Fly Paper, when it was first broadcast in 1995 as part of the Showtime anthology series Fallen Angels, so I was glad to catch up with it today on YouTube. Click here to watch that episode, which starred Christopher Lloyd as the Op, and also featured Kristin Minter, Darren McGavin, and Laura San Giacomo. The screenplay was penned by none other than Donald E. Westlake.

• TV producer-writer Lee Goldberg and small-screen entertainment historian Wesley Hyatt are the guests on Ed Robertson’s new installment of TV Confidential, his popular two-hour radio talk show. Their topic this time out is unsold TV pilots, about which Goldberg knows a good deal, having produced a trio of books on the subject, all of which were recently reissued in print and made available for e-book readers. This episode of TV Confidential will air through Monday, August 24, on a variety of radio stations, and then be archived here.

• In Reference to Murder brings word that the captivating Sarah Shahi (formerly of Fairly Legal and Life) will be returning to CBS-TV’s Person of Interest for its fifth (and perhaps final) season. “Her character was shot in the middle of Season 4,” explains blogger B.V. Lawson, “but it was the actress’ maternity leave that prompted her hiatus from the show.” CBS hasn’t yet announced when Person of Interest will begin airing again.

• “Becky Masterman, author of the critically acclaimed Brigid Quinn novels, discusses how Dorothy Uhnak’s The Bait was a forerunner in chronicling how the police deal with the psychological trauma of their job.” Read Masterman’s short piece here.

• Joseph Finder (The Fixer) offers his list of “the best books to learn thriller-writing from--a few non-fiction books, but mostly great thrillers that I think every thriller writer should read and take notes from.” Included among his choices are James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle, and William Goldman’s Marathon Man.

• Being a longtime Ellery Queen follower, I was interested to learn that publisher Mysterious Press has just added 30 new Queen titles to its e-books collection. Among the new re-releases (some of which were ghost-written under the Queen house name) are The Fourth Side of the Triangle, A Fine and Private Place, A Study in Terror, and Drury Lane's Last Case. Click here to find them all.

• A few interviews worth investigating: Steph Cha (Dead Soon Enough) and Julia Dahl (Run You Down) talk with The Life Sentence’s Lisa Levy; Levy also interrogates Michael Koryta (Last Words); Alex Segura goes one-on-one with Jake Hinkson (The Blind Alley); the Houston Chronicle chats up Linwood Barclay; and Linda Fairstein discusses Devil’s Bridge with Stephen Campbell of CrimeFiction.FM.

• Last but definitely not least, Daniel Hatadi, Australian creator of the crime fiction-oriented social-networking Web site Crimespace, sent a note around today, asking that people “consider making a donation towards the running costs” of his operation. As he explains, “, the company who provides the servers and service for Crimespace to run on, charge an annual fee. The fee is $239.90 (U.S.), and although I do receive donations at times, I’m well short of that target this year. Most years I’ve been a little short, but I don’t run this for profit so it’s not usually a problem.” To contribute, go here.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Beyond Batgirl

Yvonne Craig, who died earlier this week at age 78 due to complications from breast cancer, has received a great deal of attention both for her dazzling role as Batgirl on the 1960s TV series Batman and her sexy turn as an Orion slave girl on Star Trek.

However, the Illinois-born ballet dancer turned actress was also once a familiar guest star on American TV crime dramas, from Perry Mason and Philip Marlowe to Checkmate, It Takes a Thief, 77 Sunset Strip (on which she appeared four times), The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, The Mod Squad, O’Hara, U.S. Treasury, Mannix (two episodes), The Magician, Kojak, and Starsky & Hutch. In addition, she portrayed a wannabe dancer in trouble in the 1973 NBC-TV film Jarrett, an unsuccessful pilot starring Glenn Ford as a private investigator who specialized in fine-arts cases. Click here to watch clips from a variety of Craig’s on-screen performances.

“It’s nice to be remembered,” Yvonne Craig told a New Orleans interviewer in 2000. Really, how could we forget?

READ MORE:Yvonne Craig, TV’s Sexy Batgirl of the 1960s, Dies at 78,” by Mike Barnes (The Hollywood Reporter); “Yvonne Craig, TV’s Batgirl, Dies at 78,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command); “The Late Great Yvonne Craig,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts); “Yvonne Craig, 1937-2015” (; “Yvonne Craig, R.I.P.,” by Mitchell Hadley (It’s About TV!).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Last Words (Little, Brown) marks Michael Koryta’s return to private-eye fiction, following his popular Lincoln Perry series. Here the protagonist is Markus Novak, a gumshoe in the employ of a Florida-based pro bono legal firm that specializes in winning freedom for wrongly convicted death-row inmates. To distract Novak from his continuing obsession with the demise of his lawyer wife, his boss sends him north to Indiana, where he’s to determine whether the firm should take on an investigation into the mystery surrounding a teenage girl. It seems that a decade ago, Sarah Martin vanished into a cave used heavily by tourists, only to be found--handcuffed and dead--by a knowledgeable but eccentric caving enthusiast, Ridley Barnes. Barnes can’t say for certain whether he did the girl in, but his small-town neighbors are convinced of his guilt. Novak figures he’s just wasting his time interviewing the people involved in that long-ago fatality. But after he’s suckered with lies, then told in no uncertain terms to beat a hasty retreat home, the private eye starts to wonder whether this make-work assignment deserves closer attention. The Catalyst Killing, by Hans Olav Lahlum (Mantle UK), isn’t actually due out until next week, but since so many new novels are being issued right now, I didn’t want to miss mentioning this one. It’s the third entry (following Satellite People) in Norwegian historian-author Lahlum’s series starring Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen, aka K2, and his brilliant but disabled young assistant, Patricia Louise Borchmann. This time around, the pair probe the murder of Marie Morgenstierne, whose fate might be connected to the disappearance, two years ago, of her boyfriend, Falko Reinhardt, during a mountain walking excursion. Did Morgenstierne know something about the incident that would have caused her more recent concerns? And is there a link between both of these mysteries and Falko’s research into Norwegian Nazis?

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Bloody Blades and All That Jazz

“It is no easy matter,” wrote one Victorian-era minister, “to go to heaven by way of New Orleans.” Indeed, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Louisiana’s largest and best-known city was a hotspot for hedonism and crime, a place where order, wealth, and sophistication struck an uneasy balance with saloons and bordellos, rampant lawlessness and municipal dysfunction. That balance was severely upset, though, right after World War I ended, when a mysterious serial murderer known as the Axeman began to prey on New Orleanians. Or, specifically, to prey on Italian grocers in the Crescent City.

Ray Celestin’s debut novel, The Axeman--published last year in the UK, but to be released in the States on September 1 by Sourcebooks--captures all of the mystery and fear associated with the Axeman’s 1918-1919 rampage. To that, it adds the stories of three separate and engaging investigators, all fictional and all wishing to expose the killer and terminate his bloody activities. As I write in my review of the novel, posted today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site:
Celestin wastes no time pitching readers into the Axeman investigation, complete with political connivances, surreptitious informers, gang rivalries and wild reports of suspicious characters abroad at the time of the attacks. (“People wrote in to say they had seen Negro men flying through windows, eight-foot-tall Indians, Slavs with horned heads, dwarves, Chinamen, Creoles who disappeared in a puff of smoke, or banshees fluttering between rooftops.”) There’s talk that the assassin is actually more than one person; that he’s black; that he’s Italian; that he might’ve begun his rampage long before 1918; and that he could be one of the shockingly many city residents once relegated to the state insane asylum. … The crime scenes—with their bloody axes, suggestive tarot cards left behind and doors locked from the outside—attest to the Axeman’s interest both in confusing police and inciting alarm in the city’s populous.
I invite you to read my full critique of The Axeman here.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Some Thoughts About the New “U.N.C.L.E.”

While I usually eschew the official openings of films, the debut of director Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. provoked me to shed that resistance. Hearing that the premiere might draw a smaller crowd than I would have feared, my wife and I went yesterday to an afternoon showing. Although the movie will almost surely disappoint U.N.C.L.E. purists, we found it entertaining, for a number of reasons:

British actor Henry Cavill, as nattily attired American spy Napoleon Solo, must have spent a good deal of time watching the 1964-1968 NBC-TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., on which this movie was based, for he has original star Robert Vaughn’s sophisticated, calm-under-pressure style down pat.

Armie Hammer’s Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin, is far more of a blunt instrument here than David McCallum’s Kuryakin ever was in the series. I knew going into the theater that this movie had tweaked the protagonists’ back stories a bit, but I didn’t expect Hammer’s KGB operative to have such anger issues. If there’s an U.N.C.L.E sequel--as the picture’s closing suggests there will be--I hope Kuryakin’s fast-burning inclination toward violence can be tamed a bit.

Twenty-six-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who portrays Gaby Teller, the daughter of a missing German scientist, is the most magnetic element of Ritchie’s U.N.C.L.E., whether she’s driving madly through the back streets of Cold War Berlin, dancing by herself in a hotel room, or betraying her colleagues. It’s no wonder that Kuryakin, who’s only supposed to be passing himself off in this story as her fiancé, takes a break from his fighting to actually fall for her.

Both Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki, who plays the seductive but villainous Victoria Vinciguerra, imbue their characters with a great deal of power. It’s nice to see women as commanding figures in spy fiction, breaking as it does certain egregious traditions.

Anyone who’s seen Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009) or its sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), will recognize his storytelling habits in U.N.C.L.E. This is especially true when it comes to the often-antagonistic relationship between Solo and Kuryakin (Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. John Watson also had their contretemps) and the way he rolls through a scene, only to come back to that same scene soon afterward for a second look revealing events that viewers missed the first go-round.

The GQ magazine critic who complained that “very little in the way of action takes place” in U.N.C.L.E. must have seen a different movie than I did. Maybe this is a generational thing, and she’s younger, more accustomed to films that try hard to imitate video games; but for my money, there were plenty of fights, chases, and other fireworks.

Like the TV show before it, Ritchie’s motion picture leavens its dramatic elements with humor--again, also familiar from his Sherlock Holmes tales. Not to give too much away, but I particularly enjoyed the scene in which Solo and Kuryakin debate the fate of a confirmed criminal, while fate intervenes to relieve them of reaching a decision.

• English composer Daniel Pemberton’s score gives The Man from U.N.C.L.E. an elegant period feel, without relying too heavily on actual 1960s music selections. Then again, I would have enjoyed some Dean Martin or Sam Cooke tracks. The trailers include a version of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song “Feeling Good” that was absent from the movie itself. Too bad.

My only other thought as I watched the end credits roll through was, “Where were Robert Vaughn and David McCallum”? Both actors are still alive and working. Surely, Guy Ritchie could have found them minor but recognizable cameo roles in this new picture. Perhaps it’s something to consider for the sequel.

READ MORE:Miscellaneous Notes About the U.N.C.L.E. Movie” and “Final Thoughts About the U.N.C.L.E. Film,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command); “6 Reasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Was the Coolest Spy Show of the ’60s,” by Brent DiCrescenzo (The MeTV Monitor); “Catching Up with Robert Vaughn, the Original Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” by Jeff Labrecque (Entertainment Weekly); “Cry U.N.C.L.E.,” by Max Allan Collins; “Man from U.N.C.L.E. by Ritchie & Wigram and Kleeman & Wilson,” by Andrew Cartmel (Narrative Drive); “Swingin’ Sixties: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” by Justin Cummings (Critics at Large).

Irvin Captures the First “Jerry”

During an event held earlier today at the second annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest, author J.E. Irvin of Springboro, Ohio, won the inaugural Jeremiah Healy Mystery Writing Award--the “Jerry”--for her not-yet-published book, Dark End of the Rainbow.

According to the southern Florida news blog Konk Life, Janet Irvin was one of four finalists for this commendation, which salutes the late detective novelist Jeremiah Healy’s “legacy as [an] influential mentor credited with helping and advising many aspiring writers.” That blog adds, “Writers from all over the country answered the call that invited candidates to submit the first three pages of a finished, unpublished mystery manuscript.” Along with Irvin’s book were three other shortlisted contenders: All Hocked Up, by Jack Bates (Rochester, Michigan); Portside Screw, by Gregory S. Dew (Ponce Inlet, Florida); and Square Grouper, by Crichton Lewis (Key West, Florida).

As previously announced, the winner of this contest is to be given a book-publishing contract with Absolutely Amazing eBooks, free Mystery Writers Key West Fest registration, hotel accommodations for two nights, and a bobble-headed “Jerry” trophy.

(Hat tip to Sandra Balzo, on her Facebook page.)

Happy Birthday, Mike Connors!

The star of Tightrope, Mannix, and Today’s FBI turns 90 years old today! The Spy Command offers a little perspective on his career.

The Good, the Bad, and the Punny

This has to be one of my favorite blogging duties: bringing to you, oh faithful Rap Sheet readers, the champions of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The task for 2015, as in previous years, was to create the worst (e.g., funniest) opening sentences from never-to-be-completed books. This competition is named in memory of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the English novelist and playwright who’s best remembered for having concocted that so frequently scorned opening phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

2015’s overall winning entry comes from Joel Phillips of West Trenton, New Jersey, and fits nicely with this blog’s crime-fiction theme:
Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
My favorite selection in the Crime/Detective category happens to be the runner-up, a morsel of inelegant prose supplied by Laura Ruth Loomis of Pittsburg, California:
When the corpse showed up in the swimming pool, her dead bosoms bobbing up and down like twin poached eggs in hollandaise sauce, Randy decided to call the police as soon as he finished taking pictures of his breakfast and posting them to his Facebook wall.
But I also appreciate this “dishonorable mention” winner in the Vile Puns category, submitted by Owen Roberts of Edina, Minnesota:
Sherlock Holmes brusquely dismissed his companion’s theory that the victim had died from an allergic reaction to either seasoning or seafood, saying “Watson, although the problem is alimentary, it is neither the Thyme nor the Plaice.”
Click here to enjoy all of the 2015 winners and their rivals.

Friday, August 14, 2015

A Matter of “Morals”


I have been hearing for a while about Public Morals, the new TNT-TV police drama from Edward Burns and Steven Spielberg, but now I realize that its debut date--Tuesday, August 25--is rapidly approaching. This has brought on a sudden flurry of publicity, including another trailer (embedded above, and following this earlier, shorter teaser) and a bunch of promotional posters, all designed as tributes to classic crime films, from Dirty Harry and Tony Rome to Get Carter. Mashable has the whole set of those posters on display.

As most of you probably know, Public Morals is set in New York City in the 1960s and stars Burns as Terry Muldoon, a Hell’s Kitchen-based cop with the NYPD’s Public Morals Division--“where cops walk the line between morality and criminality as the temptations that come from dealing with all kinds of vice can get the better of them,” according to press materials for the show. As Variety explains, “It has taken [Burns] nearly two decades to get his passion project about Irish-American gangsters onto the screen. … Burns’ father and uncle, who are both retired New York City police officers, inspired the plot of Public Morals.” This series, which will initially offer 10 episodes, also stars Michael Rapaport (who I still remember best from Boston Public), Elizabeth Masucci, Neal McDonough, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and the willowy Lyndon Smith (from Parenthood).

Deadline Hollywood brings the news that TV binge-watchers will be able to view several installments of Public Morals right off the bat. “For the first time,” explains Nellie Andreeva, “TNT will make multiple upcoming episodes of a series available on-demand. The day after the Aug. 25 premiere of the Edward Burns period drama …, episodes 1-4 will be viewable through set-top VOD, the Watch TNT mobile app, and, as well as on participating TV providers Web sites and apps.”

Personally, I’ll be happy with just one episode a week, beginning at 10 p.m. on the 25th. There’s no reason to use up the show all at once.

One Down

This is most decidedly not good news: Crimespree Magazine’s Jon Jordan reports that Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Mystery One Bookshop--which opened in the spring of 1993--will soon close its doors: “At the end of August there will be a send-off for the store and [owner] Richard [Katz] is hoping to have events lined up for Thursday and Friday the 27th and 28th, and a daylong party on Saturday the 29th. The store has been reaching out to authors to make the send off a big day with great prices on books and a chance for everyone to say good bye to the store and have some fun. Think Irish wake or funeral in New Orleans.” Read more here.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

I Spy with My Little Eye ...

Lately it seems there have been many small, crime-fiction-related stories that do not necessarily merit their own posts, but nonetheless deserve a mention. Here are a few more such items.

• The second annual Mystery Writers Key West Fest, “Murder & Mayhem in Paradise,” will begin tomorrow and run until Sunday in Key West, Florida. This year’s convention will have as its headliner Jeffery Deaver, the author most recently of Solitude Creek (Grand Central). But one of the event’s biggest attention-grabbers is likely to be the presentation of the inaugural Jeremiah Healy Mystery Writing Award, aka “The Jerry.” It’s named, of course, in memory of novelist Healy, who created the John Francis Cuddy private-eye series and took his own life in August 2014. Contenders for this prize were asked to submit, to a judging panel (which includes Healy’s fiancée, mystery novelist Sandra Balzo), the first three pages of a finished but unpublished manuscript no later than June 30, 2015. Finalists were then asked to send in their full novels for assessment. As far as I can tell, there’s been no announcement of who made the shortlist, so we’ll all be surprised when the winner is announced on Saturday morning. If you would like to take part in this convention, but haven’t yet registered, you can take care of that little detail here.

• The Spy Command reports that director Guy Ritchie’s new big-screen picture, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.--splashing onto U.S. theater screens tomorrow, Friday--“is expected to have the lowest U.S. opening weekend of 2015 spy movies,” earning perhaps $20 million over the course of its opening weekend. That sounds pretty good, until you compare it with the $55.5 million that Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation scored its first weekend.

• Not that I care about such things ... I’m significantly more likely to spend my movie-going money on U.N.C.L.E. than I am on anything starring Tom Cruise (who headlines Rogue Nation). And though I’m understandably wary of Hollywood turning classic TV shows into big-screen flicks, GQ magazine praises Ritchie’s picture as “awfully charming and wittily scripted.” Critic Helen O’Hara writes of how she was surprised “that very little in the way of action takes place” in this film, starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, yet she’s already looking forward to a sequel, “because after this charming but slightly too restrained opener, it will be fun to see what this devious, dapper pair get up to when they really let loose.”

• Nancie Clare’s latest guest for her Speaking of Mysteries podcast is the ever-entertaining Kelli Stanley, author of City of Ghosts.

• Novelist Patricia Highsmith is the focus of this year’s second issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection, due out soon. Commemorating 20 years since her demise at age 74, the magazine will look at topics ranging from “The Question of Insanity in Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley” to “Conformity and Singularity in Patricia Highsmith’s Early Novels.” Click here to peek at the cover of this forthcoming edition, and go here for details about ordering yourself a copy.

• August marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina clobbering New Orleans and other parts of the American South--a natural disaster that was compounded by incompetence within George W. Bush’s administration. As part of its extensive commemoration of that event, National Public Radio today interviewed author Walter Mosley (And Sometimes I Wonder About You), whose family has “roots in New Orleans,” though he grew up in Los Angeles. The same interviewer, Renee Montagne, also asked Mosley to share his memories of L.A.’s 1965 Watts Riots, which took place 50 years ago this week and found Mosley, at age 13, “scared” by the violence erupting across his city.

Did Raymond Chandler foresee Google in 1953?

• Les Blatt from Classic Mysteries offers some suggestions to readers wanting to acquaint themselves with the rich roots of this genre.

• David Thomson, a film critic for The New Republic, looks back fondly at the cinematic work of Alfred Hitchcock and asks that immortal question, why have his films endured while those made by others have been forgotten?

• And I’m afraid I had not heard of the Golden Crown Literary Society before this week, but it’s a “non-profit, volunteer organization whose mission is education and the promotion and recognition of lesbian literature.” What’s more, it gives out annual awards, the Goldies, one category of which is Mystery/Thriller. As Janet Rudolph notes in Mystery Fanfare, the three winners for 2015, announced on July 29, were: The Acquittal, by Ann Laughlin (Bold Strokes); Left Field: Lillian Byrd Crime Series, Book 5, by Elizabeth Sims (Spruce Park Press); and The Consequence of Murder, by Nene Adams (Bella). The full rundown of this year’s Goldies winners can be found here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

In the Dark Places, by Peter Robinson (Morrow), was published last year in Great Britain as Abattoir Blues. Abattoir is, of course, another word for slaughterhouse, which suggests that there will be blood spilled across these pages--and indeed there is. Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks and his crack team are summoned to the Yorkshire countryside, where a pricey tractor has gone missing from the property of a “hobby farmer,” a guy who’s often dismissed by his neighbors as being too upscale for their tastes. Does this incident indicate the existence of a criminal ring specializing in the procurement of high-end agricultural equipment? And might it be connected to the discovery of a bloodstain at an abandoned World War II aircraft hangar, the disappearance of two local young men, and a truck that has crashed on an ice-slick road? This is the 22nd Banks novel (following Children of the Revolution, one of my favorite reads of 2014), yet the DCI receives less attention here than usual; there’s more focus on Detective Sergeant Winsome Jackman, another member of his team, whose love life is looking up. The Windchime Legacy, by A.W. Mykel (Brash), is an intricate high-tech thriller, originally published in 1980, that imagines America’s espionage network being controlled by SENTINEL, an intelligent supercomputer that keeps close track of all U.S. spies--and can decide to eliminate them, if necessary. When one of SENTINEL’s creators chooses to defect to the Soviet Union, where he expects to receive greater admiration for constructing a more aggressive version of the computer, secret agent Justin Chaple--aka Pilgrim--is sent to stop him. But that task will pit Chaple against the KGB’s foremost killers, lead to the agent’s betrayal, and ultimately leave him on his own with scant hope of survival. The dialogue and sex scenes in this novel can be over-the-top, and the writing creaks a bit with age, but it’s still a solid and often exciting yarn.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Covering the Beat

• With director Guy Ritchie’s new big-screen picture, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., set to hit U.S. theaters this coming Friday, The Spy Command points us to this Los Angeles Times piece recalling the origins of the 1964-1968 NBC-TV series on which that movie is based. “The story,” writes managing editor Bill Koenig, “looks at a number of angles, including how 007 author Ian Fleming was involved in the first few months of the show’s development.”

• The San Francisco Chronicle provides its own retrospective on U.N.C.L.E., which includes this bit of trivia: “At the peak of U.N.C.L.E.’s popularity, star Robert Vaughn (as American Napoleon Solo) says he and co-star David McCallum (as Russian Illya Kuryakin) received up to 70,000 fan letters a month. The Beatles reportedly asked to meet Vaughn when they came to America in 1966.”

• Let’s not forget the upcoming 50th anniversary of another iconic TV series, Get Smart, which was first broadcast on NBC on September 18, 1965. Edward A. Grainger (aka David Cranmer) offers this Criminal Element piece about Get Smart’s opening episode, “Mr. Big,” noting: “You don’t have to look far to see the show’s lasting influence in shows like Archer featuring another secret agent bumbling through the cloak and dagger world, wreaking havoc. But Get Smart made us laugh at the pretentious first and, at fifty, remains a shrewd satire.”

• Happy fourth birthday to the UK blog Crime Fiction Lover.

• Speaking of CFL, it reports that there’s a campaign underway to give author-screenwriter Raymond Chandler a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame: “Screenwriters Bill Boyle and Aaron Lerner are both huge Chandler fans and have launched the campaign--the aim is to raise over $50,000 in order to purchase the star. After all, without works like The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye--all of which were made into films--an entire genre of Hollywood movies might never have been made. And ask yourself, why should the Rug Rats, Big Bird, Lassie, Bob Hope’s wife, and the Victoria’s Secret models have stars, and not our man Raymond?” You can be part of the campaign to give Chandler his star by donating here. It appears the fundraising will continue through the end of August.

• The Rap Sheet won a mention in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, thanks to UK correspondent Ali Karim’s 2010 interview with C.J. Box. Box has a new standalone suspense novel, Badlands (Minotaur), out on bookstore shelves.

• There’s more about Box in the Crimespree Magazine blog.

• According to SpyVibe, “Shortly before his death [in 1971, jazz trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong] contributed a poignant vocal performance to the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Written by John Barry and Hal David, the tune served as an emotional anchor for Bond's budding love affair in the movie.” Click here to enjoy Armstrong’s performance.

• In 2003, Lawrence O’Donnell Jr.--who'd been a writer and producer on The West Wing (and who has since transformed himself into the host of an MSNBC news show bearing his name)--launched another politics-oriented NBC-TV series titled Mister Sterling, about an idealistic young U.S. senator, Bill Sterling, played by Josh Brolin. The premise was that Sterling had won the seat by appointment, after its previous occupant perished, and he was expected to get up to speed with some help from his more experienced Washington, D.C., staff as well as his father, a savvy former governor of California (played wonderfully by James Whitmore). Mister Sterling lasted only 10 episodes, and there’s been no subsequent DVD release. However, those episodes have suddenly appeared on YouTube.

• “The recent death of Patrick Macnee had me and anyone else who has watched TV in the last fifty years thinking about The Avengers [1961-1969],” wrote Michael Shonk in Mystery*File a couple of weeks back. “Most fans of the series, especially Americans, are familiar with Emma Peel and the later seasons of The Avengers, but not the early seasons. I have always been curious on what happened before Diana Rigg arrived.” To settle his own interest, as well as ours, Shonk put together a two-part feature about the early days of The Avengers. Part I looks back at the show’s beginnings as “a hard-boiled thriller with a dark sense of humor,” starring Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel and Macnee in a supporting role as spy John Steed. Part II celebrates the debut of Honor Blackman as curvaceous Mrs. Catherine Gale, “an intelligent widow, a scholar, and someone who had survived living in adventurous Africa. She would prove to be a type of female hero TV audiences had rarely seen before.” Shonk offers links to full episodes of the program to illustrate its evolution as a viewer favorite.

• Nancie Clare interviews Martin Walker for her podcast series, Speaking of Mysteries. Walker, as you undoubtedly know, is the Scottish-born author of the Bruno, Chief of Police mysteries, the newest of which is The Patriarch (Knopf).

• Other interviews worth checking out: Wallace Stroby (The Devil’s Share) talks with Pulp Curry; David Mark (Taking Pity) is interrogated in The Life Sentence; Craig Faustus Buck (Go Down Hard) has an interesting chat with S.W. Lauden; BOLO Books quizzes Paul Cleave about his new standalone novel, Trust No One; Korean-American crime novelist Steph Cha (Dead Soon Enough) fields queries from the Los Angeles Review of Books; and Sara Paretsky (Brush Back) answers questions about her life and writing in The Guardian.

• Finally, Craig Sisterson--judging convenor of the annual Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel competition--speaks with Radio New Zealand about “the state of New Zealand crime writing, the finalists for the 2015 Ngaio Marsh Award …, what makes good crime, and much more. Nordic noir and authors including Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Camilla Lackberg, Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Lee Child, Lisa Gardner, and others also got a mention or two.”

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Ned Hunters

The shortlist of nominees for the 2015 Ned Kelly Awards, “Australia’s oldest and most prestigious prizes for crime fiction and true-crime writing,” were announced on Saturday, August 8, by the Australian Crime Writers Association.

Best Crime Novel:
Sweet One, by Peter Docker (Fremantle Press)
Eden, by Candice Fox (Transworld)
A Murder Unmentioned, by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)
Crucifixion Creek, by Barry Maitland (Text)
Gun Street Girl, by Adrian McKinty (Profile)
Present Darkness, by Malla Nunn (Atria)

Best First Crime Novel:
King of the Road, by Nigel Bartlett (Random House)
What Came Before, by Anna George (Penguin)
Chasing the Ace, by Nicholas J. Johnson (Simon & Schuster)
Quota, by Jock Serong (Text)

Best True Crime:
The Fall, by Amy Dale (Random House)
This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial,
by Helen Garner (Text)
The Family Court Murders, by Debi Marshall (Random House)
He Who Must Be Obeid, by Kate McClymont and Linton Besser (Random House)
The Murder of Allison Baden-Clay, by David Murray (Random House)
The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, by Liam Pieper (Hamish Hamilton)

S.D. Harvey Short Story (with Kill Your Own Darlings):
“A Watched Pot,” by Aoife Clifford
“Short Term People,” by Andrea Gillum
“Prisoner's Dilemma,” by Stephen Gray
“Sweetie,” by Grace Heyer
“Daddy Played the Trumpet,” by Adriane Howell
“Roux’s Sister,” by Darcy-Lee Tindale

This year’s Ned Kelly Awards recipients will be declared on Saturday August 22, during the Melbourne Writers Festival.

(Hat tip to Shotsmag Confidential.)

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Bullet Points: Sick Day Edition

I almost never become ill, but I’ve suddenly been hit with a sore throat (what, in summer?) and general fatigue. So if you discover errors or any non-English sentences in the following news wrap-up, please forgive them--I’m not running on all cylinders today.

• I sure hope this is true: Variety reports that filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen “will write and possibly direct an adaptation of Ross Macdonald’s bestselling novel Black Money for Warner Bros.” I’ve found great entertainment in several Coen brothers pictures in the past--from Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing to Fargo and True Grit--so I have no doubt their interpretation of Macdonald’s 1966 Lew Archer private-eye tale could be compelling. Only two other Archer yarns have so far been turned into big-screen dramas: The Moving Target (1949), which was the basis for Paul Newman’s 1966 film Harper (watch clips here and here), and The Drowning Pool (1950), which also became a Newman flick, in 1975. Mission: Impossible’s Peter Graves starred in a better-than-average 1974 NBC-TV series pilot based on Macdonald’s The Underground Man (1971), that failed to earn him a return to America’s weekly small-screen schedule (though it did convince NBC to hire Brian Keith, instead, to lead the 1975 midseason replacement series Archer). And nothing seems to have come of rumors, spread in 2006, that Macdonald’s 1959 turning-point novel, The Galton Case, would become a feature film, courtesy of Random House films and Focus Features. So the prospect that Black Money will show up in movie theaters is--to borrow a line from Vice President Joe Biden--a big fucking deal. Meanwhile, if haven’t already enjoyed the novel Black Money, consider this provocation to catch up on your reading of Macdonald’s work.

• It sounds as if author Steve Hamilton underwent a particularly acrimonious parting recently from his longtime publisher, St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur. Both sides are accusing the other of inciting the split. “In the end,” Hamilton is quoted as saying, “I just want to work with a publisher who’s passionate about my work, and who has a real plan for reaching the widest possible audience. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. But I didn’t feel like any of that was in place at St. Martin’s Press, or that it ever would be.” Apparently he has more faith in G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The Associated Press says that Hamilton has already signed a four-book deal with that rival publishing house. This will ensure the release of his next novel, The Second Life of Nick Mason, about a character who “has already spent five years inside a maximum security prison when an offer comes that will grant his release twenty years early.” St. Martin’s had planned to deliver the book to stores in late September, but Putnam now has it listed for a mid-2016 release.

• The August issue of Mike Ripley’s “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots includes notes about the annual “What’s Your Poison?” summer celebration at Cambridge’s Heffers bookshop, thrillers set in an alternative version of the Second World War, the long-running radio escapades of Simon Templar (aka The Saint), and new releases by David Hewson, Sophie Hannah, Felix Francis, and Liberian author Vamba Sherif. Click here to find Ripley’s full column.

• Having watched the dramatic trailers for the Man from U.N.C.L.E. movie--scheduled to debut in U.S. theaters next Friday, August 14(!)--I have had my radar out for associated news reports. And Bill Koenig’s The Spy Command blog has delivered, big-time. Here, for instance, is a list of “five U.N.C.L.E. stories from the 1964-68 [TV] series that may enhance the experience of new fans ahead of the film.” Click here to read an interview with Daniel Pemberton, who composed the picture’s soundtrack. And 81-year-old actor David McCallum, who played “loyal Soviet” spy Illya Kuryakin in the TV series, says he endorses the coming film: “I think it’s a wonderful success.”

• Speaking of Koenig’s blog, it suggests the next fictional spy who should be reanimated for cinematic purposes is … Matt Helm.

• The three-part ITV adaptation of Julian Barnes’ 2005 novel, Arthur & George, starring Martin Clunes, is set to begin showing in the States on Sunday, September 6, under the umbrella of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! As the PBS Web site explains, this mini-series--based on historical events--finds Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle (Clunes) “outraged by injustice to an Anglo-Indian solicitor” and using “the methods of his own fictional detective to get at the truth. Co-starring are Arsher Ali (The Missing) as George Edalji; and Charles Edwards (Downton Abbey) as Alfred Wood, Sir Arthur’s real-life ‘Dr. Watson.’” A preview of Arthur & George is posted below.


Writing in January Magazine, I couldn’t help but weigh in on the controversial decision by an independent Michigan bookstore to “refund the price of Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman (Harper) to any reader who’s dissatisfied with their purchase of said work.” Let me just say, I am not impressed.

• Crime Fiction Lover offers a first look at Ian Rankin’s new John Rebus novel, Even Dogs in the Wild, which is due out in the UK in November (with an as-yet-to-be-determined U.S. release date). Here’s the plot brief: “[Siobhan] Clarke is investigating the death of a lawyer, who was killed during a robbery, but it looks less like a random attack when she receives a note from an anonymous source. Big Ger [Cafferty] gets a similar message--a threat--and as the ageing gangster has been a bit closer to Rebus in the twilight of their respective careers, Clarke calls the ex-detective out of retirement to help save Cafferty’s skin.”

From In Reference to Murder: “Ever wondered if there was a secret formula behind Agatha Christie's plotting? Research commissioned by UKTV channel Drama for their Agatha Christie Hour says it looks a little something like this: k l,n,s=f[m-lkf+lk+n+s].”

• Did you know there is yet another Star Trek film in the works, this time an independent one called Star Trek: Axanar? It’s already exceeded its public fund-raising goal and has received the endorsement of “Spock’s son,” Adam Nimoy.

• Fancy owning your own Jim Rockford cutout?

• It was only this last weekend that I finally found the free time to see Mr. Holmes, the new film based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, and starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Milo Parker. It’s beautifully shot, I found McKellen thoroughly convincing as an aged Sherlock, young Parker’s performance suggests he is destined for a rich on-screen career, and while I missed Cullin’s prose, his story about “a lonely man, increasingly showing signs of frailty and dementia” (to quote from Patti Abbott’s Crimespree review of the film) is generally well-translated. If you haven’t seen Mr. Holmes already, I suggest you add it to your movie-going schedule.

• I’ve been rather remiss in not alerting everyone about Nancie Clare’s recent additions to her excellent Speaking of Mysteries podcast series. Skip tonight’s Republican presidential-wannabe circus … er, “debate” on television and instead turn an ear to the following conversations Clare has had recently with crime-fiction contributors: Vu Tran, the author of Dragonfish; Otto Penzler. “dean of the mystery fiction genre”; Ace Atkins, whose new Quinn Colson thriller, The Redeemers, recently saw print; Ingrid Thoft, author of the latest Fina Ludlow P.I. novel, Brutality; and Robert Rotstein, who’s out with The Bomb Maker’s Son, the third of his Parker Stern mysteries.

• Other interviews worth checking out: Gravetapping’s Ben Boulden has posted a superior conversation with Bill Crider (Between the Living and the Dead); Mark Rubinstein talks with Linwood Barclay (Broken Promise) for The Huffington Post; New Zealand blogger Craig Sisterson has a short exchange with Patricia Melo, Brazilian author of The Body Snatcher; and retired professional basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar fields some questions about Mycroft Holmes, his September novel, from Crimespree’s Erica Ruth Neubauer.

• Frank Bill, Hilary Davidson, and Johnny Shaw are all on Dead End Follies’ list of “New Generation Genre Writers You Need to Read.”

• Talking about Season 4 of Longmire, which will debut on Netflix come September 10, executive producer Greer Shephard explains the new episodes will focus on “second chances. Who you are as a person is defined by how you handle the second chance. Netflix has incorporated that theme in their campaign. There are a lot of ways in which people can rebuild themselves after devastating experiences. We explore that theme throughout each of our characters. Now that [Sheriff Walt Longmire] knows the murderer of his wife, how does he go on? With Henry [Standing Bear], he has a new-found freedom, what does he do with it?”

• Finally, A.V. Club reports that Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski, who was so captivating as a spy in the 2007-2012 NBC-TV series Chuck, has signed on to star as a “mysterious Pinkerton detective” in Edge, a “post-Civil War-set Western, based on a series of pulpy oaters by novelist George G. Gilman.” She’ll play Beth, “a newcomer to the town of Seward, Kansas, where the various parties at play in Edge come together for their violent confrontations. She’ll be joined by Max Martini, playing Edge himself, a vengeance-seeker who comes to repay his brother’s death upon his former comrade, Meritt Harknett (Ryan Kwanten, from True Blood).”

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

“Heads” and Other Tales

Chances are it’s escaped your attention until this moment, but I have devoted my new Kirkus Reviews column to an interview with Paul Johnston, the Scottish-born author of Heads or Hearts (Severn House), the sixth entry in his award-winning series starring near-future Edinburgh investigator Quint Dalrymple. The fact that Heads or Hearts exists is a real treat for Quint fans, most of whom probably thought Johnston had given up on this sardonic ex-cop after 2001’s House of Dust. That Heads or Hearts is also an excellent thriller portending the release of still more Quint tales is further good news.

It’s not necessary that you be familiar with the previous five entries in Johnston’s series before tackling Heads or Hearts; the author provides ample background to help newcomers understand the fictional world in which this story’s action takes place. But reading those earlier works--Body Politics (1997), The Bone Yard (1998), Water of Death (1999), The Blood Tree (2000), and The House of Dust--would still be worthwhile, if only because Johnston clearly had fun imagining what Edinburgh might be like as a corrupted utopia. On his Web site he provides a bit of background to this series, which starts off in the year 2020, the setting for Body Politic:
The United Kingdom (and much of Europe) has been torn apart by drugs wars in the early years of the twenty-first century. Gangs of criminals run wild in most areas, but Edinburgh is different. In the last election of 2003, the people vote in the Enlightenment Party, a small grouping of university professors that promises to get rid of crime. They succeed in doing so, forming themselves into a Council of City Guardians backed up by a powerful force of auxiliaries (policemen and bureaucrats)--their ideas came from Plato, that well-known thinker and proto-fascist.

The ordinary citizens, as the bulk of the population is termed, benefit from guaranteed work, housing, welfare, and lifelong education. They also attend a compulsory sex session every week. On the downside, the regime has banned cars, computers, smoking, television, private phones, and popular music--and your partner in the weekly sex session is chosen for you by the authorities. Of course, things are not what they seem in this supposedly benevolent totalitarian system. Far from doing away with crime, the guardians have only pushed it underground. They are too busy looking after the tourists who come to Edinburgh for the year-round festival, the gambling, the licensed brothels, and the marijuana clubs. And where there’s sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll, you can be sure that crime will raise its ugly head …

Enter our hero. Quintilian--Quint, for short--Dalrymple is a former senior policeman who was demoted after refusing to accept orders. At the start of the series he works as a laborer, handling missing-persons cases in his spare time. He is tolerated by the guardians because he takes some pressure off the overworked City Guard--and because he’s good at what he does. Quint is a maverick who gets up the regime’s collective nose, a lover of whisky and the blues. You can trace his roots back to [Philip] Marlowe and Sam Spade, to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes, and to any hard-nosed cop you care to name (Bullitt, Popeye Doyle, whoever)--though he has a softer, more intellectual side to him.
With all of that in mind, here’s my brief synopsis from Kirkus of the plot offered in Johnston’s new novel:
As Heads or Hearts opens, the year is 2033. The guardians have loosened some restrictions: citizens can again listen to blues and rock music, watch previously banned movies and acquire “half-decent coffee.” There’s also a referendum in the works to reconstitute Scotland. That reunification might be endangered, however, by a rash of crimes beginning with the discovery of a human heart in the middle of a football stadium. When a headless corpse is later found close to another playing field, the guardians summon Quint’s help. Once more paired with his old police colleague, the violence-prone Davie Oliphant, Quint sets out to determine whether these grisly finds are linked to a rise in local gang activity and sports betting, black-market dealings that implicate the guardians themselves or perhaps the upcoming referendum.
If Quint is a multifaceted character, his creator seems hardly less so. As Johnston explained in this top-notch 2003 interview with January Magazine contributors Ali Karim and Simon Kernick, he studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University, worked in the shipping industry, did a turn as a newspaperman in Athens, Greece, and taught English before embarking on a career penning fiction. For years he divided his time between the UK and Greece, but is currently residing in London. He’s now 13 years into his second marriage, his wife a Greek civil servant (“that much maligned breed”) named Roula.

Although Johnston started his career as a novelist turning out Quint yarns and winning awards for those works, he has since branched out into two other well-known series--one starring Alexandhros “Alex” Mavros, a Scots-Greek private eye based in modern Athens, the other featuring Matt Wells, a crime writer turned P.I. In addition, he’s composed a police procedural under the nom de plume Sam Alexander and is planning to launch another pseudonymous series.

Being an enthusiastic and curious interviewer, I tend to ask authors many more questions than I have room to accommodate their answers in my Kirkus columns. I followed that same path in my recent e-mail exchange with Paul Johnston and wound up with plenty of extra, intriguing material, covering everything from his interest in science fiction and his thoughts on Greece’s financial bailout to his author-father’s help in getting him started as a storyteller. Consider what follows to be Part II of my interview with Johnston, Part I being contained in this week’s Kirkus column.

Oxford friends-turned-authors Robert Wilson (left) and Paul Johnston at CrimeFest 2014. (Photograph by Ali Karim.)

J. Kingston Pierce: Are you still dividing your time between homes in southern Scotland and southern Greece’s Peloponnese region?

Paul Johnston: No, I’ve recently moved back to the UK to set up base camp in advance of getting my kids out of Greece in the next few years--no future for them there. I’ve also disposed of the Scottish house and have the use of the family flat in Edinburgh from time to time. Not sure where I’ll end up yet as I’m looking for a university creative writing job. Which does not mean that I’ll stop writing fiction. It was useful to have two homes in the past. Often I’d write about Scotland when in Greece and vice versa--there was a degree of objectivity that was advantageous. My family--and my 5,000-plus books and 1,500 CDs--are still in Nafplio so I will be back …

JKP: It would be understandable to regard the Quint Dalrymple series as science fiction, since it is set in the future--or at least a dystopian future as you imagined it in the 1990s. But do you think of it in that way? And are you a big SF fan?

PJ: The House of Dust was actually shortlisted [in 2002] for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, a major SF award. The thing is, anything that’s set in the future, even a few years hence, is classified as SF, whether you like it or not. So the Quint novels were crossover crime/SF, not a great place to be in terms of marketing. I do read SF--more now than I did when I first came up with Enlightenment Edinburgh--and I love it because it’s full of ideas; much more than crime fiction. On the other hand, I’m no scientist, so hard SF is beyond me. I also have to say that the pulp origins of much SF, primarily American, led to poor writing. There are plenty of exceptions--[Philip K.] Dick and [Kurt] Vonnegut are favorites. I think Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. I also have a high regard for Nineteen Eighty-Four, even though it’s a problematic novel. The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau are also great--and unusually short for [H.G.] Wells. But my favorite SF novel of them all is my fellow Scot David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus [1920], an almost forgotten, highly original, hugely poetic and doom-laden masterpiece. Oh, and I love SF movies. Blade Runner and the Alien series (even the rickety ones) are hardy perennials.

JKP: A variety of things have changed in your imagined Edinburgh since the story told in Body Politic. For readers who haven’t yet discovered or at least haven’t been keeping up with this series, could you describe the city’s evolution over the period about which you have written so far, 2020-2033?

PJ: Generally the regime--protectors of an independent and supposedly benign totalitarian city-state--has veered between tight control of citizens’ lives and more liberal periods. At the beginning there was no TV, phones, smoking, popular music, cars, or photos (too egocentric); this was balanced by guaranteed work for life, housing, lifelong education, and a compulsory weekly sex session with the partner chosen by the Recreation Directorate (lovely…). Ten thousand auxiliaries enforce the City Regulations and make sure the tourists attending the year-round festival are treated like royalty. Many of the auxiliaries are police officers, known as guardswomen/-men. By 2033 the Council has become unable to maintain its hard-line stance and citizens are treated more humanely--they can wear their hair and facial hair how they like, start (small) businesses, listen to blues and rock music (for your information I’m currently listening to the magnificent American band WhiskeyDick’s “Fallen Heroes”) and watch previously banned movies. The result is an increase in crime and gang activity. So much for the original Council’s proud--if self-deceiving--boast that there was no crime in the city.

JKP: And in what respects has Quint himself changed over the course of these now half-dozen books?

PJ: I find that difficult to answer as I have very little objectivity. Last year, before writing Heads or Hearts, I reread the five earlier novels. I couldn’t remember a lot of the action or characters--and some of the jokes really grated. I’d like to think that Quint develops as a character. He has some pretty awful experiences so it would be weird if he didn’t. But deep down he remains the maverick with the big mouth that I first envisaged and people enjoyed reading about. He’s more in touch with his emotions now, I think, but still smells a rat every time the Council involves him in a case. Trust no one in authority is his--and my--motto.

JKP: Heads or Hearts has much to do with murders and cover-ups and Quint’s investigation, but while all of that is going on, there are votes scheduled to determine whether the Scottish city-states should begin gathering again into a larger country, for the benefit of all. This seems an intriguing turn, especially in light of last year’s Scottish independence referendum. You must’ve been writing Heads or Hearts in the midst of that political debate. Did it inspire or flavor your plot?

PJ: Yes, it’s my take on the referendum for Scottish independence. I was writing the book during the debate and after the result. [In Heads or Hearts] Edinburgh citizens have to decide if they want to rejoin Scotland, though the referendum doesn’t happen in the book. The plot revolves around certain factions’ opposing views on independence, so I used a lot of elements from the real debate. In a novel, though, everything comes down to character. My position in Heads or Hearts is that people get overly committed to single positions and are unable to empathize with those of others. Coalition is a way forward, but not in my Edinburgh. In any case, (some) Scottish politicians are as flawed and avaricious as those in other countries. Satire is still essential, which is how I present things in Heads or Hearts. The title refers, among other things, to whether you allow your emotions free rein or whether you apply reason to problems--very enlightenment. There’s too much emotion in public affairs and political parties need to become more intellectually coherent.

JKP: Did you support the 2014 independence referendum?

PJ: I was fine about there being a referendum, but I imagine your question is really directed at what result I wanted. I was hugely conflicted. Most Scottish writers--including myself--were pro-independence because the country is culturally very different from the rest of the UK, especially southern England. On the other hand, I spent time in business and I wasn’t--and still am not--convinced that the Scottish National Party’s economic plans are credible. It’s a rough world for small countries--see what’s happening to Greece, which has more than double Scotland’s population--and being part of a larger state may be more secure. More recently the Nationalists won a huge majority in the Westminster election, doing the Labour Party no favors at all. The advantage is that Scotland will get more devolved powers. That may well lead irrevocably to independence, especially if the rest of the UK votes to leave the European Union; Scots are in the main great Europeans. Economics aside--which is, of course, ridiculous--I would be happy with a Scottish passport. So, I’m on the fence …

JKP: Although the Quint yarns are set in the near future, you enrich them with Scottish history. Is history a prime interest of yours?

PJ: Yes! I studied British (not Scottish) history at school, but my main concern was ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve since educated myself about Scotland’s past, although it isn’t an easy task for an atheist. The church--or rather, different churches--played such a large part in Scottish history that I needed to suspend my disbelief, so to speak. There are many cracks about the deleterious effects of organized religion throughout the series. The Council runs an atheist regime, though churchgoing is permitted. As in modern Britain, no one much cares to go.

JKP: Following the publication of your fifth Quint Dalrymple novel, The House of Dust, you turned to composing two other series, one set in Greece and starring P.I. Alex Mavros, the other led by a crime writer named Matt Wells. What did those ventures teach you about storytelling that you didn’t know from working on the Quint books?

PJ: The Mavros series--starting with the original trilogy of A Deeper Shade of Blue (later republished as Crying Blue Murder), The Last Red Death, and The Golden Silence--was very educational in terms of the narrative. I went to third-person [viewpoint], thus distancing myself from the narrator, and I also cut from Mavros to other characters, making the texts more complex and multi-focal. Which I learned a lot from. That distancing was also important because, unlike the slightly futuristic Quint books, those novels dealt with a society I’d experienced, that is with “real” history (in quotation marks because everyone has their own reality). I needed a hands-off approach to maintain some objectivity and the third-person did that.

As for the Matt Wells quartet--The Death List (easily my most successful book commercially in the UK, U.S., and several other countries), The Soul Collector, Maps of Hell, and The Nameless Dead--it went back to the first-person, with crime novelist-turned-hard-nosed P.I. Wells talking the talk, but again there were sections from other characters’ points of view in the third-person. So I was learning how to combine multiple ways of presenting material, and I hope I became a more rounded writer as a result.

JKP: Are you also working on another Alex Mavros novel?

PJ: No. I’m taking a break from Mavros, mainly because I’m out of Greece now and, frankly, have been ground down by the country’s problems. I imagine he’ll be back, though.

JKP: Since you have brought up Greece and its current financial difficulties a couple of times now, let me ask what you think of the country’s recent bailout referendum and the eurozone’s subsequent deal giving Greece money in exchange for pension cuts and tax increases. Do you think the Greek people got as good a result as they could’ve expected?

PJ: It’s a nightmare, but one that’s been going on for five years now. Many extended families [in Greece] live off one salary or pension. Many people work without being paid in the hope that their companies will survive. My wife’s civil-service salary has gone down by 40 percent and will be cut further soon. The lenders clearly decided that Greece was going to be punished for its reluctance to apply the austerity measures that many renowned economists see as discredited and completely unrealistic. There’s bound to be debt relief, so it should happen sooner or later. The crisis is partly Greece’s fault--it should never have joined the eurozone--but foreign banks lent very irresponsibly. The irony is that Germany has destroyed the markets for its goods in southern Europe and will be in crisis itself in a decade. The Chinese and other tiger economies will be laughing all the way to their highly profitable banks.

JKP: I asked earlier about the future of the Mavros series. But what of novelist Matt Wells? You left him behind in 2011’s The Nameless Dead. Will he be resurrected sometime in your fiction?

PJ: Wells was always the wild card in my “oeuvre.” The first two books were very successful, but then the publisher stopped promoting them, so the best one--Maps of Hell, which is set in the U.S.--withered on the vine. The conceit of turning a mild crime writer into a freelance Black Ops specialist appealed to my self-mocking side. Never say never. Quint and Mavros both came back from the realm of Hades, and so might Matt.

JKP: Are there other books you’re working on that have nothing to do with any of these three series?

PJ: Last year Carnal Acts, a quasi-police procedural that I wrote under the pseudonym Sam Alexander, was published by Arcadia Books. I say quasi, because I was really taking the tropes of the subgenre and of my own writing past and playing with them as much as I could. The hero is a female, mixed-race cop who moves from London to northeast England, where she joins a police force that I invented in a town that I invented. I like cop movies and TV series--well, the offbeat ones--but I have absolutely no interest in obsessing on procedural issues. Joni Pax isn’t a drinker or one-night-stand type, though she does have issues. The book is really about people-trafficking and an Albanian sex slave, Suzana, who kills a pimp and escapes. I link this to the landed gentry, whose families made a fortune from the 18th-century slave trade. Big themes, as usual … At least the novel and the lengthy critique I wrote about it got me a Ph.D. in creative writing. “Always look for something different to do” is another of my mottoes. I’ve started yet another series, but I can’t talk about it yet, sorry.

JKP: Will that new series also be by “Sam Alexander”?

PJ: No, but it will be under another nom de plume, decided upon but as yet still secret.

JKP: Your father happens to be Ronald Johnston, the author of such popular thrillers as The Black Camels of Qashran, Paradise Smith, and Sea Story. Is he still with us, and how influential has he been in shaping your development as a fiction writer?

PJ: No, he died in 2009, aged 82. He was a great help and mentor, always the first reader of my drafts. He was very practical and gave me a lot of useful advice about publishing. He had no time for purple prose and believed firmly in page-turning stories. He would write comments on my printouts. The best I ever got was a single word for The Last Red Death: “Wow!” I treasure that. I’m not sure how much he influenced me. For my sins, I’m much more of an intellectual than he was (he trained and served as a master mariner). But he kept my feet on the ground and extolled the virtues of simple plots, strong characters and convincing settings. Two out of three ain’t bad …

JKP: I also want to inquire about your health. As I understand it, you’ve already survived two different cancers, but are not free of cancer concerns in the future. How is your health now? And how have your cancer scares affected your fiction?

PJ: Thanks for the concern. I’ve now had four different types of cancer, thanks to a malformed gene that makes me more vulnerable. Three of them required major surgery and two needed chemotherapy afterwards. The last was thankfully pretty minor. But the threat is always there. I’ve come to terms with it to some extent--it’s 12 years since the first one so, like Ripley’s alien, cancer seems to have been my companion for a long time. I’m OK now, which is something to drink several glasses to! My view of life has changed completely since pre-cancer. Dark thoughts and impulses prevail. I still don’t know what drove me to write a novel about the fate of the Greek Jews in Auschwitz (Alex Mavros’s sixth case, The Black Life). I still haven’t recovered from opening that Pandora’s Box. I’m on the trail of Hope, who supposedly was hiding under all the ills that flew out, but she’s proving elusive. Still, anyone who thinks crime writing’s easy isn’t taking it seriously enough.

JKP: Finally, I want to ask you a question I have posted to other authors in the past: If you could’ve written any book that doesn’t already carry your byline, what would it have been?

PJ: How long have you got? I know--Aristophanes’ The Birds. Bet no one else gave that answer …