Sunday, October 15, 2006

London Calling

J. Kingston Pierce has invited me to join his team here at The Rap Sheet. That’s very flattering, as I have been a contributor to the “mother ship,” January Magazine, for many years now. Even so, I had to think long and hard about how blogging might impact my already maddening life and a schedule that includes not only my day job, but my other writing, reviewing, judging, and reading commitments (for Shots, Deadly Pleasures, and Crimespree Magazine, as well as the British Crime Writers’ Association’s (CWA) Red Herrings Magazine and the International Thriller Writers). But seeing Jeff and his wife again in London a few weeks back convinced me to contribute. So here I am.

The UK is small in terms of geography, but we do have a thriving literary scene so it seems only apt that I should keep Rap Sheet readers apprised of what is happening on our side of the Atlantic. There will naturally be a London bias, due to our capital being the epicenter of the British publishing world. But I travel and attend literary events throughout the UK and Ireland, so I shall try to report back from “the provinces,” too. As I am interested (or according to my wife, obsessed) with crime, mystery, thriller, and science fiction novels, there will naturally be a strong bent toward murder and mayhem in all its fictional glory.

• This last week, my highlight was attending the CWA’s Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award presentation, held on Monday at the Courthouse Hotel Kempinski in the heart of London’s West End. It was a glittering affair and a swan song for Lucy Ramsey of Headline Publishing, who had organized many, many events over the years in her publicity role for Headline as well as for the CWA. Jane Morpeth of Headline acknowledged those efforts during her opening remarks at the awards ceremony. Lucy is taking up the position of publicity director for Quercus Publishing next month, and we all wish her well.

As you probably know by now, Edward Wright won the Ellis Peters award for his excellent novel Red Sky Lament, and it was a touching moment for both Edward and his wife, Cathy. They told me afterwards that they had no idea Lament would win, that attending this ceremony was just another excuse to visit London, a city they have come to love. As modest as ever. I would strongly recommend you looking up Wright’s three novels so far.

Attendance at this event was remarkable, as many CWA members, along with other writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, and agents, were present. On hand were some of my fellow reviewers/editors, including Mike Stotter, Barry Forshaw, Mark Timlin, Bob Cornwell, and Geoff Bradley (the last two of whom we applauded for all of the hard work they’d put into the latest edition of CADS [Crime and Detective Stories] magazine, which features a special supplement to which many of us had contributed). It was also good to meet up with novelist Nick Stone (Mr. Clarinet), and after a few beers I challenged him to an arm-wrestling bout--and won. (The photo above shows both of us, with Stone on the right.) This seemed like quite an achievement, because when I interviewed him earlier in the year, Nick told me about his passion for boxing, so I knew he’d be a fighter. By the way, the paperback edition of Mr. Clarinet is just out in the UK (with a hardcover edition due in U.S. bookstores sometime next year), and Nick assures me that he’s hard at work on a follow-up titled King of Swords.

• Another London-based writer who is renowned for hard-edged crime novels is Martina Cole, who also knows a number of boxers and real-life tough guys. I’ve known Martina for many years and spent a boozy evening with her and Stotter at the Harrogate Crime Writing festival this last summer. Martina is one the UK’s top-selling crime writers (with more than seven million books in print). Following on the heels of The Take (2005), Martina’s new novel, Close, is the story of the women who are left behind when gangsters find themselves on the wrong side of steel prison bars. Set in London’s dark and violent gangland, this novel tells the tale of a gutsy mother and her two sons, and their lives in and out of jail. I always warn readers that Martina’s novels are not for people with sensitive dispositions, but they do reflect the reality of our society’s darkest recesses. Martina was interviewed recently by the London Times, and the results make for some interesting reading. If you haven’t tried her books, it’s high time you did so.

• An interesting aspect of these literary gatherings is how they can produce and spread rumors. Thanks to my having interviewed Robert Littell many months ago, I got to meet Overlook Press’ Peter Mayer, who publishes Littell and owns Duckworth. I heard that Duckworth had found itself recently at the center of an interesting and amusing controversy. It seems that Rohan Kriwaczek, author of the The Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin, admitted to The Times that he had duped one of publishing’s most distinguished names, using “manuscripts bought on eBay, photographs from antique shops, names from the graves in his favourite cemetery and a number of forged documents” to manufacture a fascinating mystery surrounding a supposedly “new type of music [that] emerged during the Protestant Revolution in Europe, which sought to recognise the deceased and the mourners’ sense of grief.” Mayer later told the Times: “Questions of whether it was fiction or non-fiction never really occurred to me because it was a ‘thing’ and not everything in life is categorisable.” Kriwaczek is unrepentant, saying: “If I had wanted to hoax people I would have made it more realistic. I think the people at Duckworth knew what they were dealing with.” Inevitably, all the publicity led to The Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin topping the Amazon list of “mover and shakers,” and its sales leapt from 500,000th place to 73rd place on bestseller charts. Duped or not, sales are what really matter in this business, and Duckworth is now preparing a second print run.

• Another rumor I’ve heard is that there is a “big book” coming from Ion Mills’ No Exit Press entitled Gangsters Wives. It’s supposedly the work of an unidentified but very well-known British crime writer, but is due to be published under a pseudonym. It is apparently a full-on erotic gangster novel--talk about mixing genres. (If you know more about all of this, please e-mail me.)

• While we’re talking about big-name crime fictionists, the Cheltenham Literary Festival was held this week, and making a rare trip to our shores was the legendary John Grisham, a writer whose work and politics I admire. He was in interviewed in The Telegraph this week, and you’ve got to give the man a hand: Ask his opinion of George W. Bush and he will give you an earful, his jaw clenched and his eyes full of contempt. “His administration is all cronyism,” Grisham told the paper, “so nothing works and nobody cares ... I hate the way Bush has used the threat of terrorism to divide the nation, and I hate the way he uses his ‘Christianity’ ... to reach out to the far Right. I can’t think of anything positive I’ve seen from this bunch in the last six years.” The interview is excellent, and Grisham’s rage about the current U.S. administration almost sets the printed page on fire. He also talks in the Telegraph piece, though, about his current, non-fiction work, The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, which I found well worth reading. Miss it at your peril.

• Two decades ago, when I left my job as an analytical chemist with a plant in Essex/East London, my managing director gave me an inscribed book--The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, an Oxbridge professor--as a departing gift. I have followed Dawkins’ work ever since, and was amused to discover that his latest book, The God Delusion--which asserts the irrationality of a belief in God and denounces the suffering that such beliefs have caused over the centuries--is now at the top of the Amazon bestseller chart. It’s also climbing up The Times’ bestseller list and is tipped to be No. 1 in the UK by Christmas, ironically, the English-speaking world’s foremost religious holiday. An intriguing article about Dawkins and his new book can be found here.

• The bad news: In England, it appears, pre-university students can pass their English examinations without reading a single book. Just goes to show there is no God.

• The good news: The Mystery Writers of America’s 2007 Grand Master, Stephen King, will be making a rare visit to Britain next month. A decade ago, he gave a talk at the Royal Albert Hall; though I had a ticket, I had to miss the presentation, due to a work crisis. But I won’t miss seeing The King this time around. During a November 7 evening event at Battersea Park, London, the legendary author will be interviewed onstage, answer questions submitted by readers of The Times, and read from his forthcoming novel, Lisey’s Story. Tickets go for £15 each; to reserve, call 08708 303 488 (tickets are subject to availability). I shall be reporting about the event and King’s visit, because I have read, reviewed, and written about his work ever since Carrie hit bookshelves back in 1974.

• Next week, I’ll head to the northen city of Sheffield for the Off the Shelf Festival of Writing and Reading, where I shall join author Peter Lovesey for a literary dinner, and where the CWA will finally announce the winner of the 2006 Short Story Dagger Award. So next week, it quess it will be “Sheffield Calling.”

(Hat tip to the late, great Joe Strummer for this post’s headline.)


anne frasier said...

this is almost too much for me. ali karim and
james ellroy. i hope i don't wake up tomorrow to find out this was all a dream.

Sophie Vogt said...

Jim Harris at Prairie Lights Books recently sent me an advance copy of AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ART OF FUNERARY VIOLIN and I must take issue with his colleague Paul Ingram’s assessment that the book is a hoax. My belief is that the Rohan Kriwaczek hoax is itself a hoax.

Let me explain. I am the director of MuseumZeitraim Leipzig and a former curator at The Wassmann Foundation, Washington, D.C. Research and scholarship at both institutions confirms that the Leipzig composer Hugo Wassmann, brother of the renowned artist Johann Dieter Wassmann, was an active member of the Lutheran wing of Leipzig’s Guild of Funerary Violinists in the 1890s. Hugo’s ultimate falling out with the Guild came in 1901 over his efforts to introduce the saxophone to funerary rights, a practice that would eventually take hold in the city of New Orleans with great success, although not among Lutherans. Hugo was a former captain in the Prussian army and regularly composed military marches inclusive of the saxophone.

Here in Leipzig, the funerary violin has a long and crucial history, most often associated with Heironymous Gratchenfleiss. Gratchenfleiss’s extensive archives were in the care of
Musikinstrumenten-Museum der Universität Leipzig, part of the Grassi Museum, but lost forever when the complex was gutted by fire in an Allied bombing raid on 3 December 1943.

The un-sourced (and poorly translated) letter Kriwaczek quotes referencing Gratchenfleiss, dated 14 September 1787 (pp 62-63), which he simply describes as “by an unknown man named Fredrik,” is in fact by the pen of Fredrik Wassmann, grandfather of Johann and Hugo, describing the funeral of their great-grandfather, a funeral Gratchenfleiss performed. An original copy of the letter is in the archives of The Wassmann Foundation. The liberties Kriwaczek takes with his facts would appear to be part of a larger narrative strategy to make it appear he has created a hoax, when he hasn’t. What a dull book it would have been otherwise.



Sophie Vogt
MuseumZeitraum Leipzig