Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Crime Year to Remember

What a great year, beautifully chronicled by Jeff, Linda, and (most) of the others. And 2007 already looks like a Killer: debuts by Marcus Sakey and Sean Chercover, a new publishing life for John Shannon with The Dark Streets, some promising entries from Barbara Seranella (Deadman’s Switch) and T. Jefferson Parker--and that only takes us to April!

You’re the Top!

Due to unexpected technical difficulties, it took longer to post than anyone foresaw; but January Magazine’s “Best Books of 2006” mega-feature is finally up, including 45 books--selected by nine critics--in the crime-fiction section. (A couple of other titles that could have appeared along with them--Jeb Rubenfeld’s The Interpretation of Murder and Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Rising--were moved to help fill out the general fiction page.)

Included among this year’s picks:
The Big Boom, by Domenic Stansberry
By the Time You Read This, by Giles Blunt
A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church
Darkness & Light, by John Harvey
Dope, by Sara Gran
The Drummer, by Anthony Neil Smith
A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read
The Hidden Assassins, by Robert Wilson
Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer
The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos
The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard
A Stolen Season, by Steve Hamilton
The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard
Zero to the Bone, by Robert Everz
There are also a couple of crime-related books highlighted in this feature package’s non-fiction section: Michael Connelly’s Crime Beat and Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck, a terrifically consuming follow-up to The Devil in the White City (2003).

Special thanks are due here to January editor Linda L. Richards, who put in many frustrating (and tear-provoking) hours trying to overcome software quirks, in order to bring us this year’s selection of “favorites.” Without her persistence and her willingness to learn a new software program, the “Best Books of 2006” might not have been posted until well into 2007. She deserves a hearty toast! Champagne, of course.

The 2006 End Game

This was a sorry year, in many respects. It introduced still more scandals into Washington, D.C. (see here and here), pushed the U.S. military death toll in Iraq over the 3,000 mark, and forced us to deal with Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism, Tom Cruise’s couch-jumping antics and religious extremism, Dick Cheney’s atrocious aim, and pop singer Britney Spears’ oddly exposed crotch. But as end-of-the-year list-makers confirm, the last 12 months also had their high points.

Blogger Uriah Robinson of Crime Scraps celebrates 2006 as the year he discovered “authors Leonardo Sciascia, Andrea Camilleri, Gianrico Carofiglio, and Carlo Lucarelli” and realized “Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall were as good as I remembered after a 15-year gap in reading their police procedurals.” L.A. Noir’s Stephen Blackmoore remembers fondly a few books he read over the last 12 months, among them Saturday’s Child, by Ray Banks, Already Dead, by Charlie Huston, and Pale Immortal, by Anne Frasier. Meanwhile, Bill Crider delivers one of the most broad-ranging “year in review” rundowns I’ve seen yet, incorporating not only his “favorite new TV series slogan,” from NBC’s Heroes (“Save the cheerleader, save the world”) and his “best paperback writer news” (“Stark House will be publishing a brand-new Gil Brewer novel”), but a bit of self-congratulation for the “topic I avoided entirely this year (well, except for once): Lindsay Lohan’s nipples.” Crider, however, more than made up for that restraint with his coverage of Paris Hilton ...

Happy New Year, everyone!

I Remember Dead People

Before we sign off completely on 2006, let’s take a moment just to pay tribute to some of the crime-fiction-related folk who passed away over this last year:

January 19: Anthony Franciosa, actor, star of The Name of the Game, Search, and Matt Helm. He was 77 years old.

February 24: Dennis Weaver, actor, star of McCloud. He was 81.

February 25: Darren McGavin, actor, star of The Outsider and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He was 83.

April 17: Scott Brazil, producer/director, The Shield and Hill Street Blues. He was 50.

June 23: Aaron Spelling, the prolific TV producer who gave us Charlie’s Angels, Hart to Hart, Vega$, Starsky and Hutch, and The Mod Squad. Spelling was 83.

July 8: Dorothy Uhnak, cop turned author, whose semi-autobiographical book, Policewoman: A Young Woman’s Initiation Into the Realities of Justice, inspired the Angie Dickinson TV series Police Woman. She was 76.

July 17: Mickey Spillane, writer, creator of private eye Mike Hammer. He was 88.

July 19: Jack Warden, actor, star of Jigsaw John and Crazy Like a Fox. He was 85.

August 30: Glenn Ford, actor, star of The Blackboard Jungle, A Pocketful of Miracles, Cade’s County, and Jarrett. He was 90.

October 22: Arthur Hill, actor, star of Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law. He was 84.

November 10: Jack Palance, actor; he appeared in Shane, City Slickers, and the TV series Bronk. He was 87.

November 21: Robert Altman, director, best known for films such as M*A*S*H and Nashville, but also responsible for the controversial 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye. Altman was 81 years old.

Did I forget anyone?

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Thrill of the New

How in the heck did founder-editor Kevin Burton Smith arrange to have it snow over at The Thrilling Detective Web Site? You’ve got to see it to believe it can happen! I definitely want to know what he did to change the climate in his little corner of the blogosphere, and how I can steal that brilliant idea for The Rap Sheet next winter.

Meanwhile, Thrilling Detective fans will want to know that my friend Smith is in the midst of piecemealing out the latest update of his almost 9-year-old site. The cover illustration is up, as are short stories by Jack Bludis (“Blondes, Blondes, Blondes!”), Karl Koweski (“The Last to Know”), and Stephen D. Rogers (“Last Call”), with promises of an additional fourth, to be delivered by the suddenly everywhere-to-be-seen Duane Swierczynski (The Blonde). “Already,” Smith writes in his blog, “I think that, possibly, this is the best and strongest bunch of stories we’ve ever done.” He goes on to note that on top of those original yarns, “we’ve also got excerpts from two new releases for you to sample”: Michael Siverling’s The Sorceror’s Circle (“a good old-fashioned P.I. romp with a few decidedly modern touches”) and Frederick Zackel’s Cocaine and Blue Eyes (“a classic; a stone-cold slice of seventies private eye fiction that has been criminally out of print for far too long”). Smith promises, too, to post the results of his year-end Cheap Thrill Awards “in the next few days.”

Personally, though, I look forward most to Smith’s “What’s New on the Site” column, in which, with each issue, he lists all of the new or expanded entries in the Thrilling Detective database of crack, crappy, and downright creepy fictional sleuths. Whenever I am in the mood to idly browse the Web, it’s to this database that I go first, assured that even an old crime-fiction hand like me can learn something new and interesting.

* * *

Speaking of new issues ... the December/January edition of Mystery News arrived the other day at Rap Sheet world headquarters. Its contents include a satisfyingly in-depth interview with Southern crime novelist Ace Atkins, the author of this year’s White Shadow, a book based on the real-life murder in 1955 of a Tampa, Florida, rackets boss; Stephen Miller’s check-in with some of the authors (Libby Hellman and Victor Gischler among them) he has profiled in the recent past; and another interview, this one with award-winning Icelandic mysterymaker Arnaldur Indridason (Voices). Oh, and Marv Lachman reintroduces us to Lillian de la Torre (1902-1993), who early on wrote tales for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine starring 18th-century lexicographer--and, it seems, part-time sleuth--Dr. Samuel Johnson, and later penned three historical crime novels, perhaps the best known of those being Elizabeth Is Missing (1945).

Alive and Kickin’ Ass

The Murder & Mystery Books 101 blog has finally named its Book of the Year: Damn Near Dead (Busted Flush Press), “an anthology of geezer noir,” edited by Duane Sweirczynski (who also penned one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2006, The Blonde). The persistently unnamed author of MMB 101 dubs Damn Near Dead “one of the best anthologies I have read in a long time. It’s highly original and a brilliant idea to have all the main characters being senior citizens, especially in a genre [in which] the main characters are usually in the[ir] late 20s on up to the 40s. From gun-carrying grandpas to cane-wielding grandmas to a 90-year-old man getting that one last fling in with another woman to the Senior Citizens just looking to find ways to extend there lives through various forms of transplants, these stories will humor you, excite you, and you probably won’t look at your grandparents the same way again after reading this collection of stories.”

Rounding out MMB 101’s top-five crime-fiction selections for 2006: The Afghan, by Frederick Forsyth; The Dramatist, by Ken Bruen; Big City, Bad Blood, by Sean Chercover; and Billy Boyle, by James Benn.

No. 1 Again

What do novelists Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith have in common? Other than that they were both reared in Scotland (though Smith was actually born in what was then Rhodesia), they’ve both now been inducted into the Order of the British Empire. Rankin was awarded the OBE, a British order of chivalry, in Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee Birthday Honors List back in June 2002, while Smith was just been made a CBE (Commander rank, as opposed to Rankin’s Officer grade, if I comprehend these degrees accurately) for his “services to literature.”

According to BBC News, Smith, who writes the best-selling Precious Ramotswe series (including 1998’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), said after hearing about his award: “This is a tribute to one particular Botswana lady and what she represents. So I might say this award is really for Mma. Ramotswe.”

Friday, December 29, 2006

If Only I Could Claim a Literate Clone ...

At the end of every year, I glance back at my record of books read, and--after congratulating myself for having covered so much ground (both in fiction and non-fiction)--lament the fact that many other titles never quite made it to the top of my to-be-read pile. Life and work (and, I admit, recreational blogging) have a tendency to get in the way of my burying my nose in one good book after the next. As a result, the following “unlucky 13” crime novels will just have to wait for my attentions in 2007:
Buried, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown UK)
Bust, by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr (Hard Case Crime)
The Casebook of Sidney Zoom, by Erle Stanley Gardner (Crippen & Landru)
Cold Kill, by David Lawrence (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Darkness & Light, by John Harvey (Otto Penzler/Harcourt)
A Field of Darkness, by Cornelia Read (Mysterious Press)
Gardens of the Dead, by William Brodrick (Viking)
The Meaning of Night, by Michael Cox (Norton)
Memory Book, by Howard Engel (Carroll & Graf)
Mr. Clarinet, by Nick Stone (Penguin UK)
The Poe Shadow, by Matthew Pearl (Random House)
The Prisoner of Guantánamo, by Dan Fesperman (Knopf)
A Stolen Season, by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
And I don’t even want to consider how many entries in the wonderful Akashic Books Noir Series I still have waiting on my plate. (I think I’m almost done with Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Noir.) If I actually believed in making New Year’s resolutions, I would probably commit myself to reading all of the aforementioned novels. However, I know that the next few months will distract me with new books, and by the time December 2007 rolls around, there might still be a straggler or two (or three) from this list of 13 begging for my notice. All in good time, my friends, all in good time.

(Hat tip to Bookgasm.)

Let Us Now Prey

Sarah Weinman tipped me to a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which writer Lauren F. Winner recounts the fairly rapid recent rise of “the so-called clerical mystery, in which the detective is not a cop but a minister.” Prime examples of this literary breed are Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Reverend Clare Fergusson novels (All Mortal Flesh), Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild books (The Body in the Ivy), and Ralph McInerny’s Father Dowling stories (The Prudence of the Flesh). Writes Winner:
Whether it’s men or women doing the sleuthing, it’s no surprise that ecclesiastical settings have lent themselves to mystery novels. For starters, mystery writers departing from the standard police procedural have to explain why their non-detective heroes keep stumbling over dead bodies. Ministers, of course, come into contact with death all the time.

Furthermore, clergy are supposed to have keen insight into human nature. In [Victor L.] Whitechurch’s 1927 novel, “The Crime at Diana’s Pool,” Vicar Westerham figures out who killed his parishioner. When the local police praise his sleuthing skills, Westerham avers that he simply did what a good pastor always does--pay attention to the small details of the personal dramas going on in his midst. ...

But perhaps the true logic of the ecclesiastical mystery comes from the moral, even theological, shape of mystery novels. Christian apologist J.I. Packer once observed that mysteries “would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what [J.R.R.] Tolkien called a eucatastrophe--whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. ... The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories.”
Perhaps. It’s certainly true that classic-style mysteries--those in which admirable men or women unmask villains, and perpetrators are punished for their crimes--can be seen as morality tales, clearly delineating “good” from “evil,” and always allowing the former to triumph. However, the demand for new twists on old formulas is increasingly allowing villains to escape unshackled (or at least not fully punished), and heroes to suffer for their crime-solving. Matters aren’t necessarily put to rights after a period of chaos, and I for one have no qualms about such plotting developments. I shall take creativity over clichés--even those designed to reassure me of society’s sanity--each and every time.

Rants and Raves

It seems that everyone and his kid sister wants to get into the end-of-the-year prizes game, including true-crime authors Gregg Olsen and M. William Phelps, who earlier this year launched the Crime Rant blog. They’ve just announced the winners of their first-ever Trickey Awards, named in honor of a reporter who covered the 1893 Lizzie Borden murder trial, and given to people and events that generated crime coverage over the last 12 months. In addition to presenting victors in such categories as Crime Story of the Year (the Iraq war), Crime Media Disaster of the Year (CNN legal commentator Nancy Grace), and Dumbest Criminal of the Year (John Mark Karr, “the creep who said he had murdered JonBenet Ramsey and had the media on him 24/7”), Olsen and Phelps pronounce John Grisham’s The Innocent Man (Doubleday) to be the True Crime Book of the Year.

* * *

Elsewhere, the seemingly ubiquitous Gerald So taps Paul Levine’s Solomon vs. Lord as the best novel he read in 2006 (with honorable mentions going to James O. Born’s Walking Money and J.D. Rhoades’ The Devil’s Right Hand). Sometime January contributor Edward Campion names Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails among his 10 favorite books of the last year. Editor-author Sandra Ruttan says the two books that haunted her most in 2006 were Ian Rankin’s The Flood and Anne Frasier’s Pale Immortal. And this will come as no surprise to anyone who follows the site: Bookgasm chooses Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril (a novel I thought started out well, but then died the death of 1,000 ridiculous turns) as its favorite novel of 2006. Runners-up include Seymour Shubin’s Witness to Myself, Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station, and Christopher Fowler’s Ten Second Staircase.

Crime on My Hands

In the best cases, technology can make things easier. But when something goes wrong, coping with the hurdles technology may present becomes a frustration. January Magazine’s “Best Books of 2006” feature has temporarily fallen victim to high-tech snafus. The plan was to post that feature earlier this week, but computer problems and the unexpected need to replace our old Web site management program have caused a delay in that schedule. Editor Linda L. Richards (bless her techy heart) is overcoming the complications even as I write these words, and with any luck, our mammoth package of mini-reviews should be posted later today, or perhaps early tomorrow sometime.

Meanwhile, I’ll take advantage of this lull to reveal (in alphabetical order) my own top-10 list of crime-fiction picks from the last year. Some of these novels I have written about for the “best of” package, but others are critiqued by my fellow January/Rap Sheet critics:
The Blonde, by Duane Swierczcynski (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Critique of Criminal Reason, by Michael Gregorio (Faber and Faber UK)
The Hidden Assassins, by Robert Wilson (HarperCollins UK)
The Interpretation of Murder, by Jeb Rubenfeld (Headline Review UK)
The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown and Company)
The One from the Other, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard (HarperCollins)
Red Sky Lament, by Edward Wright (Orion UK)
Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell (Little, Brown and Company)
The Wrong Kind of Blood, by Declan Hughes (Simon & Schuster)
This wasn’t a terrific year for fiction, in general; but it was a particularly satisfying 12 months of mystery and crime fiction offerings. I had a devil of a time paring my selections down to 10. Had I allowed myself to exceed that limit, I’d also have chosen A Piece of My Heart, by Peter Robinson; Ratcatcher, by James McGee; Holmes on the Range, by Steve Hockensmith; Crippen, by John Boyne; and The Railway Viaduct, by Edward Marston. All of these provided me with great delight, and sometimes overwhelming anticipation, throughout 2006.

Something New Under the Gun?

Tidbits of interesting news can be found in Ed Gorman’s “Pro-File” interview with Jeremiah Healy, author of the John Francis Cuddy P.I. series. When asked what he’s working on now, Healy answers: “A stand-alone thriller involving the stalking and implosion of a major Boston law firm. I’m also collaborating with a couple of executive producers in Hollywood on a potential police-procedural series based on, believe it or not, an aspect of investigation NOT yet tapped by the current franchise programs.”

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sperm and Eggs

With all the attention being given to the new film Children of Men, based on a P.D. James novel, about a severe dropoff in British fertility, am I the only one who remembers an excellent, gripping novel on the same theme--Greybeard, by Brian W. Aldiss, published in 1964? No babies have been born for years, and the book’s hero, the oldest man in the world (although he’s only in his 40s) leads a band on a search for a child rumored to have been seen
in the forest ...

Good News and Debuts

It seems the gifts just keep on coming this holiday season. Not only did Christmas bring me a few choice titles I look forward to reading (including Edward Marston’s new Christopher Redmayne mystery, The Painted Lady), but I see today that the January issue of Tony Burton’s Crime and Suspense e-zine is out a bit early. Among the contents are a (brief) interview with Elmore Leonard, new short stories from Dennis Vickers (“The Revengeful Crow”), Chad Kushins (“Lilies”), and C. Rochelle Weidner (“The Oracle of 22nd Street”), and the premiere of a four-part serial, “No Motive for Murder,” with the first installment penned by Gary R. Hoffman. Oh, and more good news: While last month’s edition was introduced on the Crime and Suspense front page by the theme from The A-Team, this month’s musical accompaniment is the classier theme from The Avengers. Quite an improvement!

And if that isn’t enough of a gift for this festive season, Bill Crider also alerts me to the fact that editor Steve Lewis--who three months ago put his wonderful research journal, Mystery*File, on an indefinite hiatus--has reintroduced himself on the Web as a blogger. “I’m now retired from my day job, which was teaching mathematics at Central Connecticut State University, which occupied my time for the better part of 34 years,” Lewis writes by way of explaining this format switch, as well as his newfound free time. The new Mystery*File blog comes out of the gate slowly, with a post answering questions put to him about author Erle Stanley Gardner and director Alfred Hitchcock. I always enjoyed Mystery*File, the Web site (which is still available for browsing), and I look forward to seeing how Lewis will entertain and inform us in the blogosphere.

Raymond Chandler Rules!

Am I the only one who doesn’t remember seeing Raymond Chandler’s “Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel” before?

I came across this list while surfing through The Thrilling Detective Web Site earlier today. Apparently, these “commandments” were published previously in The Book of Literary Lists: A Collection of Annotated Lists of Fact, Statistics, and Anecdotes Concerning Books (1985), edited by Nicholas Parsons. While Chandler’s prescriptions are quite different from S.S. Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories,” the two make good companions. When it comes to detective fiction, Chandler asserts,
It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law. ... If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
It must be honest with the reader.
I disagree only with the imperative that detective fiction “punish the criminal in one way or another.” There have been plenty of good stories in which some ambiguity regarding the criminal’s fate remains after the last page is turned. Life is terribly messy, leaving loose ends all along the way. Shouldn’t modern crime fiction be allowed to be just as messy?

* * *

While we’re on the subject of readers responding to this genre, I forgot to make note of a recently conducted academic study showing that “people with low self-esteem don’t seem to like it much when a story ends with a twist. In a whodunit, they like the ‘who’ to be the person they suspected all along.” Would it be going too far for bookstores to establish separate mystery sections for readers enjoying high self-esteem and others suffering from low self-esteem? Probably so. It would be equally ridiculous for authors to be inhibited by such studies. No novel is--or should be--perfect for everybody.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Round Up the Usual Suspects

So I go away for a few days to celebrate Christmas with my brother in Oregon, and what happens? First, the great James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul” (seen here performing on a 1966 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show), dies at age 73. And then Gerald Ford--who only recently became the long-living U.S. president in history--kicks off at age 93. I was always more a fan of singer-songwriter Brown, who was instrumental in the creation of soul and funk music, than I was of former footballer Jerry Ford. I was in high school when Ford pardoned President Richard M. Nixon for his Watergate crimes, and thought he should have let the scandalized Republican prez be prosecuted for his misdeeds. But I’ve come to believe (unlike some others) that Ford, who’d only ascended to the vice-presidency after Nixon’s original veep, Spiro Agnew, resigned under tax-evasion charges, probably acted in the best interests of a country torn apart by the Vietnam War and then by a paranoid president intent on maintaining his grip on power. He was certainly not an ideal president; most people probably remember him for little, save his much-lampooned stumbling and his odd assertion, during a debate with future president Jimmy Carter in 1976, that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” But Ford may have demonstrated uncommon wisdom (and predictable self-sacrifice) when he pardoned “Tricky Dick.” “When he left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency,” Dick Cheney said, following the 38th president’s death--an ironic statement, given how much Cheney’s present Republican boss has been doing to undermine the American public’s faith in presidential judgment and truth-telling.

Being out of town (and without Internet access) also left me unable to note other developments, these in the area of crime fiction. So it’s time for a round-up column of things you and I missed while we were ripping open presents and sneaking kisses under the mistletoe:

At Bookgasm, editor-author Ed Gorman concedes he can never figure out how to choose the “best” books of any year, then offers up a list of 10 titles from 2006 that he says “gave me great degrees of pleasure in a variety of ways.” That roster includes The Husband, by Dean Koontz, Ask the Parrot, by Richard Stark, and Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime, by Robert J. Randisi.

• Other critics seem more willing to go along with the “best books of the year” formulation. Denver, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain News includes several crime and mystery novels on its 2006 picks list, including The Dead Yard, by Adrian McKinty, The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld, Lisey’s Story, by Stephen King, and The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard. Meanwhile, The Village Voice’s “25 Favorite Books of 2006” rundown features only one quasi-crime novel, Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, but it also calls attention to a non-fiction work of interest to readers in this genre: Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder, by Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss. The Murder & Mystery Books 101 blog is currently counting down its foremost five novels of the year, beginning with James Benn’s Billy Boyle at No. 5, followed by Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood at No. 4. By Friday, all five will have been revealed. And in The New Yorker, author Louise Erdrich refuses to be confined to 2006 books, recommending instead a work that came out way back in 2003: Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (“if after too much of the usual holiday cheer you need a thriller about jade, the sex trade, deadly snakes, and interesting forms of corruption in this life and the next”).

• Mike Ripley is back with another witty column in Shots, this time remarking on March’s Essex Book Festival, the accuracy of book review blogs, the 80th birthday of H.R.F. Keating, and the dwindling local dominance of UK crime novelists:
Could 2007 be the year when British crime writing becomes a minority sport in Britain? In terms of the number of new titles published by British authors, it could be.

Five years ago the number of new crime titles by Brits represented 57% of the total titles published in the UK and it stayed around that figure until this year when it dropped to an estimated 52%.

It is just possible that 2007 will see the home-grown share of the market (in titles if not sales) drop below the 50% mark for the first time.
• In an interesting piece from The Guardian, writer Kate Figes talks with a few British publishers about books from 2006 that either didn’t receive the attention they so deserved, or that they wish they’d nabbed first. Among the titles highlighted: Declan Hughes’ Irish private-eye novel, The Wrong Kind of Blood, and Chris Petit’s “Le Carré-esque thriller,” The Passenger.

• “By the normal rules of detective fiction, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories should have been an abject failure,” opines Alexander McCall Smith in an essay for The Times of London about how Holmes overcame the odds to become “one of fiction’s unlikeliest immortals.” By the way, 2007 marks the 120th anniversary of Holmes’ introduction to the world, in A Study in Scarlet.

Philadelphia Inquirer books editor Frank Wilson has some nice things to say about Georges Simenon’s The Strangers in the House, a non-Maigret crime novel from 1940 (but recently reissued by The New York Review of Books).

• And I really should have posted this thing long ago, but I somehow never got around to it. Click here to read the unused prologue to Duane Swierczynski’s much-praised new novel, The Blonde. It just goes to show that, sometimes, editors are right.

READ MORE:Dana Carvey Announces the Death of Gerald Ford,” by Bob Sassone (TV Squad). Hilarious stuff!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Another Deadly Year

I can’t think of another annual anthology of crime stories that supplies as much sheer reading pleasure, plus as much important information, as the one which editors Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg lay upon us like a golden egg at the end of every year.

Their 2006 door-stopper, The Deadly Bride, is 576 pages of surveys by Jon L. Breen, Edward D. Hoch, and ace blogger Sarah Weinman (who analyzes and chooses the best of online crime, but sadly doesn’t have one of her own sharp print offerings in the book).

What stories are here are topnotch, from Sharan Newman’s “The Deadly Bride” (which of course loans the book its title) through excellent offerings by James Hall, Nancy Pickard (her The Virgin of Small Plains was one of my own best books of 2006), David Morrell, Rick Morfina, Robert S. Levinson, Jeremiah Healy, Anne Perry--the list is endlessly readable.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Those of us at The Rap Sheet want to wish everyone a joyous holiday, and then go off to party ourselves for a bit. We’ll be back with more literary and criminal doings after Christmas. Cheers.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Real Estate Must Advertise

We’ve written a couple of times about the fate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former estate, Undershaw, in Hindhead, England (see here and here). But now it appears that Bluntisham House, formerly Bluntisham Rectory, a residence in England’s Fens district to which mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers reportedly moved when she was 4 years old, is up for sale, too. An online advertisement for the property describes it thusly:

A truly magnificent and elegant former rectory with splendid views over farmland to the front, standing majestically within gardens and grounds of approximately two acres.

This breathtaking Grade II Listed residence has undergone an intense programme of modernisation, refurbishment and improvement works while in current vendor’s ownership. This substantial home now proudly offers many period features along with modern conveniences such as a superb indoor heating swimming pool and gas fired central heating system.

Bluntisham House, formerly Bluntisham Rectory, was the home of the famous author, Dorothy L. Sayers and one of the doorways is reputed to have been brought over from Oliver Cromwell’s house at Huntingdon.

The imposing house is said to comprise nine bedrooms, an indoor heated swimming pool, a couple of fireplaces, a triple garage, and--thank goodness--“a gas central heating system.” According to one listing, the asking price for the Sayers family’s former digs is £1,750,000. Much more information about this property and its attributes is available here.

Anyone in the market?

(Hat tip to Euro Crime.)

Thanks, Graham

Just a quick note of gratitude to Graham Powell for all the work he does at CrimeSpot to keep track of and publicize the content that crime-fiction-related blogs are constantly throwing around on the Web. Without his hard work, who knows what those of us who care about this genre might miss? Keep up your fine efforts, Graham.

Batting Way More than 1,000

Holy crowd-pleasers, Batman! Sometime during the night, The Rap Sheet’s counter of visitors to this site clicked past 50,000. (The evidence is there at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page.) Thanks, everyone, for giving us your attention.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Picky, Picky

While those of us responsible for The Rap Sheet and its great mothership, January Magazine, hammer out the last details of our Best Books of 2006 feature, other Internet-accessible publications are pumping out their own necessarily biased choices. Unfortunately, most of those don’t seem to contain much crime fiction. Time magazine, for instance, lists not a single mystery title among its top 10 choices, though it does include Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, an excellent partial history of America’s Southwest told through the lens of the life of wilderness scout Kit Carson. Almost equally negligent is The Times of London, which features nary a crime novel in its top 10, but does award an honorable mention to C.J. Sansom’s Winter in Madrid, a thriller set in 1940, following the Spanish Civil War.

Kate Atkinson’s crime-novelish One Good Turn ranks among the San Francisco Chronicle’s favorite books of 2006. And that California daily includes on its lengthy rundown of “other notable works” published during the last year both The People’s Act of Love, James Meeks’ compelling tale of fanaticism and murder in a World War I-era Siberian village, and Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George, which fictionalizes a real episode in Arthur Conan Doyle’s life, when the creator of Sherlock Holmes sought to help a half-Indian solicitor accused of mutilating cattle and penning obscene missives to his own family. Meanwhile, the London Observer declares Michael Cox’s hefty tome, The Meaning of Night, to be “well worth the eye--and wrist--strain” as it reveals the criminal underworld of Victorian London.

C. Max Magee has been collecting “best of 2006” book lists from all over the blogosphere for his own Web log, The Millions. Again, the crime-fiction pickings are pretty damn paltry, but Magee has featured mystery novelist Sandra Scoppotone’s list, which includes Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, a tale of crime and politics in Washington state in 1980, and Daniel Woodrell’s haunting Winter’s Bone. Meanwhile, and as one should expect, Oline Cogdill, the mystery fiction columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, presents a “best of” list that’s only about recent crime novels. Her nominees for the best such works of 2006 are:

1. The Night Gardener, by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown)
2. A tie: The Two Minute Rule, by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster), and Echo Park, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
3. No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)
4. Promise Me, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
5. Kidnapped, by Jan Burke (Simon & Schuster)
6. Piece of My Heart, by Peter Robinson (Morrow)
7. Prisoner of Memory, by Denise Hamilton (Scribner)
8. Stripped, by Brian Freeman (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
9. Silence of the Grave, by Arnaldur Indridason (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press)
10. A Garden of Vipers, by Jack Kerley (Dutton)
11. Killer Instinct, by Joseph Finder (St. Martin’s Press)
12. A Long Shadow, by Charles Todd (Morrow)
13. White Shadow, by Ace Atkins (Putnam)
Finally, although it comes from an author, rather than a regular, paid critic, I want to note that when asked by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to identify the best book he read in 2006, author Tom Robbins (Villa Incognito) selected Don’t Point That Thing at Me, by Kyril Bonfiglioli, explaining: “Laden with ornate language and a dangerous wit, this is the first volume in a reissued trilogy of British comic crime novels that feature a degenerate aristocratic art dealer and his thug of a butler. It’s like P.G. Wodehouse with live ammunition.”

You just never know who’s reading in this genre.

What’s Your Favorite Indy?

Following up on Jeff Pierce’s eloquent salute to Murder Ink (see below)--a place that holds many memories for an old New Yorker like me as well--I thought it might be a good time to enrich our support of independent crime book stores by listing our own favorites.

Mine is Mysteries to Die For in nearby Thousand Oaks, California--run by some very smart women, visited often by area writers such as Terrill Lee Lankford and Lee Goldberg, and the scene of some of the liveliest readings and Q&A sessions I’ve ever attended.

What’s yours?

What Have I Done?

I’ve agreed to interview Los Angeles crime novelist Gary Phillips (Bangers, High Hand, Only the Wicked) in front of a live audience during February’s Left Coast Crime convention, to be held in Seattle. Phillips, with whom I’ve spoken on several occasions, and whose work I have admired over the years, is scheduled to be that convention’s toastmaster. All well and good, except that he strikes me as something of an extrovert, while I’m a confirmed introvert.

So much for my plans to lie low and remain at least semi-anonymous during LCC ...

Down and Down These Mean Streets ...

Just over a week since my post regarding ABC-TV’s plans to update private eye Philip Marlowe in a forthcoming new series, Maxim Jakubowski offers up more details/speculations about the project in The Guardian:
According to [Chorion honcho Phil] Clymer, an ongoing dialogue has been taking place with Elliott Gould, who starred in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of The Long Goodbye, with a view to the actor possibly reprising the part as an older and possibly none-the-wiser Marlowe walking the backlit streets of modern California. Gould still refers to his character in Altman's film as “my guy”.

It’s certainly an intriguing prospect as Altman and Gould’s take on the classic private dick was both idiosyncratic and individual and divided Chandler fans and critics alike.
I can already picture the heads of Long Goodbye haters exploding at this prospect.

Jakubowski adds, “I have also heard of a further feature film project, with a possible Clive Owen as the eponymous detective, in which the action returns to the 1940s period of the books. A mouth-watering prospect indeed.”

(Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Closing the Book on Murder Ink

I want to tag on to Dick Adler’s earlier post by noting the news today that Murder Ink, New York City’s first independent mystery bookstore, will close on December 31 after 34 years in business. This is of particular interest to me, not only because I am fond of crime-fiction bookstores in general (including my local one, Seattle Mystery Bookshop), but because Murder Ink was the first establishment of its kind I ever visited.

This was sometime in the early 1980s, when I was making my initial, post-college journey to Manhattan. Although financial constraints and family obligations compelled me to stay with my mother’s relatives in New Jersey, I bused in to New York every morning for a week, and stayed until the last daily departure from Midtown’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. What I remember best is walking--everywhere, uptown, downtown, miles and miles. And at one point, my feet took me to West 87th Street, where Murder Ink was then located. (It has since moved to 92nd Street and Broadway.) I was already familiar with the store’s existence, thanks to the fact that it had lent its name to a Dell paperback imprint, and its then-owner, Carol Brener, was acting as an editorial consultant for Dell, sanctioning the publication of one intriguing mystery title after another (the first of that series being Sheila Radley’s Death in the Morning, 1978). But I didn’t quite know where it was to be found, and Manhattan was an unknown country to me at the time, so I probably hiked miles out of my way as I circled the store, eventually landing there late one afternoon. Brener greeted me, and she was amused to hear that I’d traveled cross-country to gape at so many crime novels in one space (a relatively small one, as I remember it). She showed me around most kindly, asking what I liked to read (Ross Macdonald, George C. Chesbro, and Collin Wilcox at the time) and suggesting other authors I might want to try. I think I came away from that drop-by bearing William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, Geoffrey Miller’s The Black Glove, Lawrence Block’s Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, and Russell H. Greenan’s The Bric-a-Brac Man. I also had in my possession a couple of the store’s black bookmarks shaped like pistols, which I shifted from one volume to another for many years after that. I’m sure they can still be found somewhere in my bookcases, though precisely where, I couldn’t now tell you.

It was on that same journey to Manhattan that I dropped in on Otto Penzler at The Mysterious Bookshop (then located in Midtown), only to find him perched high on a ladder, as he hauled books off shelves to prevent their being sopped by a pipe leak in his basement establishment. However, Murder Ink stands out more strongly, and more fondly, in my recollections. I’ve stepped into many other crime-fiction bookshops across North America and Great Britain since that time, but never again been so flabbergasted to see the diversity and multitude of works this genre can produce.

I feel for Jay Pearsall, who bought Murder Ink from Brener in 1989 and moved it three years later, also opening a general fiction shop, Ivy’s, right next door. He tells The New York Times that his rent “has been increasing by 5 percent a year and currently runs $18,000 a month,” and that his business has been hurt by the opening nearby of a Barnes & Noble store and by the exponential growth of both Amazon and eBay. With all the wealthy chain-store competition, it’s damnably difficult to operate an independent bookshop these days. Sure, Manhattan readers will still have other crime-fiction showrooms to frequent, even after Murder Ink closes its doors for the last time. (Black Orchid and Partners & Crime are still functioning, as is The Mysterious Bookshop.) However, as my friend Anthony Rainone points out on his own blog, “we all lose” when an indie store goes under. “[A]ll contribute to a continuum of specialty bookstore survival (in this case, mystery). When one takes a hit, it affects the psyche of all,” he writes.

That includes my psyche, too. After December 31, I shall be left with only my fond memories of that earliest excursion to Murder Ink. But at least I still have those.

READ MORE:Death for Murder Ink,” by Jimmy Vielkind (New York Daily News); “The Final Whodunit,” by Jay Pearsall (The New York Times); “Dutton’s--and Then There Was One,” by Denise Hamilton (L.A. Observed).

Roping in Randisi

The ubiquitous Ed Gorman, who conducted “Pro-File” interviews for the late, much-lamented Mystery*File, seems to be continuing that series on his new blog. His introductory exchange is with Robert J. Randisi, who says that he’s delivered his sequel to his first “Rat Pack Mystery,” the delightful Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime; that he’s working on a follow-up to his first “Texas Hold ’em Mystery,” The Picasso Flop (scheduled for publication in February, and co-authored with “poker analyst-actor-former tennis star Vince Van Patten”); and that the greatest pleasure of a writing career is ... well, I’m not going to tell you that last one, because it’s the funniest part of the interview. Go read the whole thing here.

Virgins Wanted

We noted early last month that the Crime Writers of Canada organization is adding a new category to its annual list of commendations: the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished First Crime Novel. But there are now more details regarding the submission process for authors hoping to be considered for that award. As In for Questioning explains, the contest is open to “any writer, regardless of nationality, who lives in Canada or is a Canadian citizen living outside Canada, and who has never had a novel of any kind published commercially.” Also, “contestants should have a completed manuscript and submit the opening chapter(s)--8,000 to 10,000 words--plus a 500-word synopsis of their crime novel manuscript.”

If you’d like to enter the competition, but haven’t yet, you had better get cracking. The deadline for submissions is January 31, 2007. Look here for more information.

Save the Independent Bookstores

The most endangered species in the world seems to be the independent crime book store, including this one and others talked about by book people, such as Sarah Weinman.

I use Amazon on my own blog, mostly because it’s a way to get the new paperback covers online for a non-geek like me--and also the chance to make a (very) few bucks. Many other crime-fiction bloggers do the same.

But the point of this post is to say very loudly that if you’re anywhere near an independent bookstore, PLEASE buy your books there--no matter where you first see, hear, or read about them. You’ll feel much better about it when you do.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Swedish Meatball II: The Sequel

Following up on Monday's post, here’s more from John Nadler at Contemporary Nomad:
Justice, dear readers. This from The Local:

A book reviewer who slated a book that had never been written has been fired.

Kristian Lundberg, an author and poet, wrote book reviews for the
Helsingborgs Dagblad newspaper.

‘The foundation of all journalism is credibility. This is also true of culture journalism. We have therefore decided that Kristian Lundberg will no longer review books for
Helsingborgs Dagblad,’ said the paper’s culture editor Gunnar Bergdahl.

Bergdahl said Lundberg may contribute other journalism to the
Dagblad.

Introducing James Bond

Reissues of classic novels generally result from a resurgence in a book’s popularity, which is most often due to an upcoming release of a film or TV adaptation. That’s certainly the case with Penguin’s recent reissuing (recent in the UK, anyway) of Casino Royale (1953) as well as Ian Fleming’s other James Bond novels. These editions come complete with 1950s pulp-style covers, and each features a fresh introduction by a modern leader in the realm of crime fiction and/or thriller fiction. I am not surprised that Fleming’s work should have inspired so many writers, and I’m very pleased to see the Bond books back on store shelves once more.

Although I’m not sure that Great Britain’s favorite suave assassin really needs an introduction, I bought Penguin’s entire James Bond backlist (again), if only to revel in the nostalgia that their covers incite. And, of course, to see what the men and women penning these new introductions have to say about the novels’ origins and impacts. The authors commenting on individual Bond titles are:

Jeffery Deaver introduces Casino Royale, in which 007 made his debut. American Deaver told me once that his 2004 historical magnum opus, Garden of Beasts, was his personal homage to the British “Golden Age” thriller, and that Fleming ranks among of his favorite writers from that era.

Live and Let Die (1954) is introduced by UK author and Creasey Dagger-winning novelist Louise Welsh (The Bullet Trick).

Moonraker (1955) is introduced by Michael Dibdin, author of the Aurelio Zen mysteries (which include Back to Bologna).

Jonathan Kellerman, who writes the Alex Delaware mysteries (Rage, Gone, etc.) contributes the foreword to Diamonds Are Forever (1956).

From Russia with Love (1957) is introduced by novelist Charlie Higson, who also writes the young Bond series and is a British TV comedy writer.

Dr. No (1958) is prefaced by Simon Winder, who has also penned an interesting non-fiction study (The Man Who Saved Britain) of the 007 phenomenon from a postwar UK perspective.

“Miscellanies” collector Ben Schott delivers the introduction to Goldfinger (1959).

American thriller writer Barry Eisler (The Last Assassin) pens the prologue to For Your Eyes Only (1960).

David Wolstencroft, author (Contact Zero) and TV series creator (Spooks, aka MI5) introduces Thunderball (1961), a novel that’s credited--by legal agreement--to Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming. (Click here for details.)

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962) is introduced by Nick Stone, who coincidentally won the Crime Writers’ Association’s Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for his 2006 debut novel, Mr. Clarinet.

Multiple award-winning Scottish crime writer Val McDermid introduces On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1963).

Japanophile Mo Hayder (Tokyo, aka The Devil of Nanking) welcomes readers into You Only Live Twice (1964).

The Man with the Golden Gun (1965) is prefaced by British espionage writer Charles Cumming (The Spanish Game).

• And Robert Ryan introduces Octopussy and the Living Daylights (1966), the 14th and final James Bond adventure.

So, pour a vodka martini, pull up a chair, drop that Walther PPK into your holster, and return to a bygone era with the world’s best-known fictional spy.

READ MORE:James Bond and I ... Long Tail on a Ghost,” by Colin Campbell (Shots).

The Great Connector

Fiction writer and editor Craig McDonald consents to a grilling by John Kenyon of the Things I’d Rather Be Doing blog, in which he talks primarily about his latest book, Art in the Blood, a collection of interviews with such notable wordsmiths as Ken Bruen, Karen Slaughter, Peter Lovesey, James Ellroy, Steve Hamilton, and others. However, their exchange also plumbs McDonald’s thoughtful opinions on the state of modern crime writing--his own, and that of others. Read the whole piece here.

Ho, Ho, Homicide

With Christmas now rapidly approaching (have you got all your gift recipients covered yet?), Euro Crime’s Karen Meek is reminding readers of crime fiction considered appropriate for this festive season. So far, she’s recapped the plots of Anne Perry’s A Christmas Secret, Ngaio Marsh’s Tied Up in Tinsel, Carola Dunn’s Mistletoe and Murder, Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, and Jill McGown’s Murder at the Old Vicarage. For more ideas of stories filled with slay bells and slaying, click here.

Stallone’s Missionary Positioning

Several weeks ago, I wrote about author David Morrell, mentioning in that same item that, on the heels of Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic revitalization of underdog boxer Rocky Balboa (in the appropriately titled Rocky Balboa), he’s going to resurrect Morrell’s John Rambo (last seen in 1998’s Rambo III). The UK’s Telegraph now has more details on that latter project:
Sylvester Stallone was ready for all the jokes when he decided to bring his Rocky Balboa and Rambo characters out of retirement. After all, Stallone is now 60. Rocky has been around for 30 years and Rambo for 24. All three have seen better days, but the actor-writer-director believes the time is right for them to have another tilt at glory. ...

Rambo IV: Pearl of the Cobra [notice the title change] sees John Rambo living as a recluse in the U.S. until a young girl goes missing. He abandons his quiet lifestyle and finds himself fighting to save a group of kidnapped Christian missionaries and at the same time battling those responsible for human rights atrocities in Burma.

“It’s about an older man who is living this very, very simple life, but no matter where we hide, eventually life catches up.”
Rambo IV is slated for release in late 2007, or early 2008.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Swedish Meatball

John Nadler, at the Contemporary Nomad blog, headlines this excerpted story “The Case of the Swedish Ghost Book: A Critical WhoDunnit, or Hell Hath No Fury like a Swedish Literary Critic Who ‘Detests’ You.” He writes by way of introduction: “We’ve all heard of books being reviewed after being lightly read or even unread, but how about a careful reading and a harsh review of a book that doesn’t exist? ...
A book reviewer on a Swedish newspaper has got himself into hot water for writing a review of a book that has not been written. To make matters worse, Kristian Lundberg claimed the book’s plot was ‘predictable’ and said the characterizations were one-dimensional.

Lundberg made the comments in
Helsingborgs Daglad, in an article about recently published thrillers, reports Dagens Nyheter. Among those he reviewed were Britt-Marie Mattsson’s novel Fruktans Makt (The Power of Fear).

Unfortunately for Lundberg, while the book had been advertised in Publisher Piratforlaget’s autumn catalogue, Mattsson never actually got round to writing it.The newspaper has made an ‘unreserved apology’ to Mattsson. Lundberg’s apology was more qualified. He told
Svensk Bokhandel magazine that he had ‘got worked up in advance about Britt-Marie Mattsson because I detest her so very greatly. But let’s hope the book is published so I get the chance to say it for real.’

Mattsson has not yet made her views on the subject known. But Piratforlaget’s spokesman Mattias Bostrom said it confirmed what they’d suspected about reviewers.

‘We’ve known for a long time that reviewers skim-read books, but now we know what really happens,’ he told Dagens Nyheter.
Read all the responses from Nadler and others to this piece here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Noir With a Mint Julep Chaser

The Oxford American, that literary quarterly magazine long associated with Southern writing, has released its Winter 2007 issue, which focuses on noir literature. The main essay is by Barry Hannah, in which he remarks,

“Hard-boiled noir,” detective, mystery--where do we separate genres here or get close to a definition? The better the book, the less definition and pedantry are required. An actual masterpiece, so rare, escapes definition and genre entirely. My students are juniors and seniors and graduates in the small MFA program we have, and I remain a happy amateur coach in the genre. What bliss it is that the books themselves do the better part of teaching. My lectures are short; the students want to talk and compare notes. Noir rewards them both as readers and as writers because there is plot, and deep, ugly urges are necessary; thus the students, with a little prompting, are reminded that literature must entertain. It is not a study or a theory or a white male linguistic colonizer, as shrieked by the pitiful leftist critics and Derridians.
Also included in this issue is a story about Brad Vice, the Alabama-born author whose award-winning book of short stories, The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, was pulled from publication amidst charges of plagiarism and incomplete attribution.

Of course, eagle-eyed crime fiction readers will notice the magazine’s cover art--the Glen Orbik front from Wade Miller’s Branded Woman, reissued in 2005 by Hard Case Crime.

(Hat tip to Rara Avis.)

A Bit of Comic Relief

Honestly, you’d think there was a better way of announcing the nominees for the annual Lefty Awards than doing so via the members-only DorothyL listserv, and hoping that crime-fiction-related blogs and other sites just happen to notice.

But, hey, this is the season for generosity, so far be it from me to complain. Too much ...

Anyway, by way of blogger Sarah Weinman, who explains that she received the information “10th hand” from D-L, here’s the list of nominees for the 2006 Lefty Awards, celebrating the most humorous mystery of the year:
No Nest for the Wicket, by Donna Andrews (St. Martin’s Minotaur)
Monkey Man, by Steve Brewer (Intrigue Press)
47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers, by Troy Cook (Capital Crimes Press)
... Go to Helena Handbasket, by Donna Moore (Point Blank Press)
Murder Unleashed, by Elaine Viets (NAL)
A winner will be announced during the Left Coast Crime convention in Seattle on February 3, 2007.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The REAL Chi Trib Best Crime List

Jeff Pierce is right--the Chicago Tribune’s best “mystery-related” books of the year selections are few and unworthy. My own crime fiction list, which will run in the paper on December 24 for reasons too complicated to go into, contains the following:
Liberation Movements, by Olen Steinhauer
Red Sky Lament, by Edward Wright
The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard
Death in the Garden, by Elizabeth Ironside
A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church
Memory Book, by Howard Engel
Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris
The Last Spymaster, by Gayle Lynds
Winter’s Bone, by Daniel Woodrell
Sorrow’s Anthem, by Michael Koryta
The Fallen, by T. Jefferson Parker
Carte Blanche, by Carlo Lucarelli;
translated by Michael Reynolds
Ask the Parrot, by Richard Stark
(The Boy Detective Fails, however, is on my long list ...)

Some Men Don’t Like to Be Taken for a Ride

Amid the waning wake of excitement over last month’s release of the James Bond movie Casino Royale, we now note, rather belatedly but with sorrow, the loss of a controversial and flamboyant Irishman, Kevin McClory--the co-writer of an earlier Bond flick, Thunderball (1965)--who died on November 20.

Bond devotees know the circumstances of McClory’s knotty association with this profitable franchise. In 1958, McClory, who had previously worked on The African Queen, Around the World in 80 Days, and other Hollywood box-office draws, collaborated with Bond creator Ian Fleming, wealthy Fleming friend Ivar Bryce, and noted British screenwriter Jack Whittingham on several drafts of potential big- and small-screen adaptations of Fleming’s suave Agent 007. “There were grandiose plans to hire Alfred Hitchcock to direct and Richard Burton to play Bond,” according to The Times of London. But following the less-than-steller 1959 release of The Boy and the Bridge, a film McClory had directed and co-written, Fleming apparently lost interest in their collaboration. Instead, recalls the UK Independent, “in ill-health with heart trouble and [feeling] very much a spent force,” the author went back to his home in Jamaica to compose what would be his ninth Bond adventure. Fleming remarked to an old friend of his from British Naval Intelligence that he was “terribly stuck with James Bond. What was easy at 40 is very difficult at 50. I used to believe--sufficiently--in Bonds and blondes and bombs. Now the keys creak as I type and I fear the zest may have gone. Part of the trouble is having a wife and child. They knock the ruthlessness out of one. I shall definitely kill off Bond with my next book--better a poor bang than a rich whimper!”

Groping about for inspiration, Fleming fastened on the screen treatment he’d been toiling over with McClory and Whittingham, and from it wrote Thunderball. A critical miscalculation, as it turned out. “Before the publication of Thunderball on 27 March 1961 in London by Jonathan Cape,” The Independent explains, “Kevin McClory obtained an advance proof copy of the novel. As soon as he realised that Fleming had plagiarised their collaborative screenplay, he sent a warning letter to the publishers that if they published the book as it stood he would take legal action. Receiving no answer, McClory sued. McClory was out to stop Jonathan Cape from representing Thunderball as the sole work of Fleming.”

The case proceeded to trial in November 1963, but was settled after only nine days, with Fleming (who would die from a heart attack less than a year later) agreeing to pay McClory damages of £35,000, as well as his court costs of £52,000. Most importantly, however, the settlement stipulated that future editions of the novel were to be credited as “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming.” “Due to the lawsuit,” explains Wikipedia, “Thunderball was pushed back as the first official Bond film in Harry Saltzman’s and Albert R. Broccoli’s series”--instead, Dr. No was released in 1962. “Broccoli and Saltzman’s production company EON Productions later made a deal with McClory for Thunderball to be made into a film in 1965, consequently allowing McClory sole producing credit for the adaptation. McClory additionally retained the rights to remake the film after ten years had elapsed.” And he chose to exercise those rights. In 1976, McClory announced intentions to make a Bond film tentatively titled Warhead, but that was stalled by more legal hassles. The project eventually fell into the hands of U.S. producer Jack Schwartzman, who in 1983 remade Thunderball as Never Say Never Again, which brought Sean Connery back into the Bond role (after having been replaced at EON by Roger Moore). For 007 fans, that proved to be a rich year: Moore’s Octopussy was also released in 1983.

“For almost two decades,” The Times notes, “McClory continued to annoy Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the holders of the ‘official’ Bond franchise, by trying to make rogue 007 movies based on his rights in Thunderball. All were shot down in the law courts until 1997 when Sony, the media group, backed McClory’s plans, leading to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with MGM, the Bond copyright holder.”

Tragically, all these legal battles swallowed up the riches McClory had won from Thunderball (which reportedly grossed $141.2 million worldwide). They also “caused him to be ostracised by the film industry,” says The Times.

Reaching for the Stars

Clearly, some of the book critics at the Chicago Tribune have a broad viewpoint on what does and doesn’t qualify as crime and/or mystery fiction. Even I wouldn’t go so far, for instance, as to claim T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk for this genre.

Now, on the one hand, expanding the definition of what fits into this category is a good thing: It means recognizing that the labels publishers and bookstores put on novels these days are often not appropriate, and are as much driven by advertising and fear of “genre-fication” as by reality. But on the other, the inclusiveness that the Tribune, for one, demonstrates could be seen as a slap in the face, suggesting that nothing which is traditionally classifiable as crime fiction really measures up to critical tastes, and only by including books that qualify under the broadest possible definition can a list of commendable works even be compiled.

The Tribune seems unready, though, to fight this definition battle. Rather than using a classic “crime fiction” or “mystery” heading in its Best Books of 2006 list, it opts instead for the more vague “Mysterious Ways,” under which it lists five titles:
The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno (Punk Planet/Akashic)
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl (Viking)
Forgetfulness, by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin)
Talk Talk, by T.C. Boyle (Viking)
The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon)
You can look over (and judge) the newspaper’s complete list of “bests” here.

READ MORE: Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, and William McIlvanney are all included in The Scotsman’s assessment of great reads from 2006; Ray Banks’ Best of 2006.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Ollie

Earlier this week, with Great Britain still shivering under the grip of its latest serial killer, American film director and screenwriter Oliver Stone demonstrated his bad taste and crassness when, during an appearance at the British Comedy Awards ceremony, he quipped: “It’s great to be back in England. I feel like the Jack the Ripper days are back. Nothing ever changes here.” Reports are that his “attempt at comedy was met with jeers and gasps of horror from the celebrity audience.” No surprise there.

Meanwhile, speculation persists that the recent murders of five young prostitutes in Suffolk, in eastern England, might have been inspired by a 1989 thriller by P.D. James, Devices and Desires. This theory, explains The Guardian, is based on the fact that “in the current case, all five victims have been found in remote rural areas after apparently being killed at night. In Devices and Desires ... a serial killer murders five women under the cloak of night.”

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Cheney Got His Gun

I know this has nothing to do with crime fiction, except that it involves an armed, dangerous, and quite unlikely character with delusional episodes (he insisted that American invasion forces would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq in 2003, and back in May 2005 he claimed that Iraqi insurgents were “in the last throes”). But I cannot resist noting the January 2007 “Bum Steer Awards” cover of Texas Monthly magazine. Every year, this much-superior-to-normal publication of its sort pokes fun at politicians, personalities, and news developments that make it clear just how unusual and ludicrous a place the Lone Star State can be. And this year’s “Bum Steer of the Year” award goes to ... Dick Cheney, the rifle-toting, bunker-hiding U.S. veep who, in February, filled a 78-year-old hunting buddy with birdshot. Accidentally, of course. No harm, no fowl, right?

As Texas Monthly remarks in its “Bum Steers” intro, Cheney is “a man who’s a real blast to go hunting with, who this year gave the country (and his friend Harry Whittington) a shot in the arm, among other places. He may be number two in the White House, but to us he’ll always be number one with a bullet. Or a pellet.”

And while you’re laughing over the cover image at the far left, observe also its remarkable resemblance to a famous National Lampoon cover from January 1973, which has been acclaimed by the American Society of Magazine Editors as one of the “top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years.” At least Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith acknowledges the similarity, writing: “It will shock and disturb you--or maybe it won’t--to learn that there are no original ideas in the magazine business; there are only good, worthwhile, creative riffs on original ideas.”

High Times in Bondland

Is the 22nd James Bond film--the second (after Casino Royale) to star Daniel Craig--going to be based on Ian Fleming’s “Risico,” a short story about European drug smuggling that was contained in his 1960 collection, For Your Eyes Only? That’s what the IGN and Cinematical sites are reporting. Read here and here.

READ MORE:The Killers Recording Next Bond Theme?” by Garth Franklin (The Sun).