Friday, October 31, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“Journey into Fear,” by Eric Ambler

(Editor’s note: This is the 30th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from UK novelist Charles Cumming, whose novels A Spy by Nature and The Spanish Game will be published in the United States in November by St. Martin’s Press. His latest novel, Typhoon, will be released in paperback in the UK in February.)

In the winter of 1995, I was approached for a job with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I was 24 years old. Up to that point in my life, I had read only one “serious” spy novel--John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)--and had never had much interest in books about the secret world. All that changed after my experiences with MI6. Inspired by what had happened to me, I read mountains of Le Carré, dipped into the best of Len Deighton, and became fascinated by the real-life exploits of Aldrich Ames, Kim Philby, and Anthony Blunt. In 2001, my first novel, A Spy by Nature, was published in the UK. A dramatized version of my encounter with MI6, it tells the story of Alec Milius, an ambitious wannabe spy who becomes embroiled in the world of industrial espionage.

To be honest, during this period Eric Ambler was not on my radar. It wasn’t until 2005 that a friend recommended Ambler’s masterpiece, A Coffin for Dimitrios (sometimes called The Mask of Dimitrios). I was bowled over by it. Much of what I had admired in Le Carré’s fiction--his expert plotting, his characterization and dialogue, his determination to use the spy genre as a platform for examining political and social issues--were all present in Ambler. So, of course, I looked at Ambler’s other novels. My favorite among them is probably Journey into Fear.

First published in 1940, Journey into Fear tells the story of Graham, an unassuming employee of the armament manufacturers “Cator and Bliss” at the dawn of World War II. Graham is a staple Ambler hero, an ordinary man who finds himself embroiled in extraordinary circumstances. “He was a careful driver, an imaginative pedestrian and a strong swimmer; he neither rode horses nor climbed mountains; he was not subject to attacks of dizziness; he did not hunt big game and he had never had even the smallest desire to jump in front of an approaching train,” the author explains.

After visiting a nightclub in Istanbul, Graham returns to his hotel room, where an unidentified man tries to shoot him. Graham sustains a nasty injury to his hand and is taken to Colonel Haki, a mysterious figure in Turkish intelligence, who tells him that he has become the victim of a sinister Nazi plot. According to Haki, Graham’s only hope of making it home alive is to take a passenger ship from Istanbul via Greece to Genoa. Against his better judgment, Graham agrees.

This is where Ambler’s skill as a writer really kicks in. Isolated at sea, Graham is surrounded by a number of brilliantly drawn secondary characters. There is the seductive nightclub dancer, Josette, and her seedy husband, José. There is the charming German scholar, Dr. Fritz Haller, and the mysterious tobacco importer, Mr. Kuvetli. In the manner of an Agatha Christie whodunit, any one of them could be Graham’s nemesis. Ambler derives an extraordinary amount of suspense from this, drawing out the day-to-day tedium and social niceties of the ship to agonizing effect. When, finally, he reveals his hand, the twists and turns of the plot catch the reader off guard.

Not that Ambler is solely interested in plot mechanics. He uses lengthy passages of dialogue, for example, to explore political ideas. A committed Communist, at least until the Nazi-Soviet pact, Ambler had no interest in perpetuating reassuring stereotypes about the glory of the British Empire. Here is Josette railing against double-standards in Downing Street:
“I do not understand it,” she burst out angrily. “In the last war you fought with France against the Turks ... They are heathen animals, these Turks. There were the Armenian atrocities and the Syrian atrocities and the Smyrna atrocities. Turks killed babies with their bayonets. But now it is all different. You like the Turks. They are your allies and you buy tobacco from them. It is the English hypocrisy. I am a Serb. I have a longer memory.”
In exploring those ideas, Ambler elevates the spy novel to a different level, paving the way for the likes of Le Carré, Deighton, Alan Furst, and Dan Fesperman. Not for him the ludicrous jingoism of William le Queux, or the dizzying exploits of John Buchan in The 39 Steps. It is no coincidence that Ian Fleming was a friend and admirer of Ambler’s. Indeed, in the 1963 film version of From Russia with Love, James Bond himself can be observed holding a copy of A Coffin for Dimitrios. The ultimate compliment!

It’s a pity that Ambler has been out of fashion in the land of his birth for so long. In the United States, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard has reissued most of the novels in a range of stylish paperbacks, all of which are easily obtainable via If you’ve read and admired A Coffin for Dimitrios, I cannot recommend Journey into Fear highly enough.

Never At a Loss for Good Books

In addition to Charles Cumming’s tribute to Journey into Fear in The Rap Sheet, today brings a load of “forgotten books” posts elsewhere in the blogosphere. Some of the highlights: Bill Crider on Preacher, by Ted Thackery Jr.; James Reasoner on Rogue Cop, by William P. McGivern; Scott D. Parker on The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury; Martin Edwards on Thus Was Adonis Murdered, by Sarah Caudwell; Dan Wagner on The Dry White Tear, by Stephen F. Wilcox; and David Cranmer on While the Clock Ticked, by Franklin W. Dixon. In addition, Patti Abbott features several “forgotten books” write-ups in her own blog, plus a list of all of today’s participants.

Bullet Points: Happy Halloween Edition

• Best news of the morning: Ashley McConnell, who’s the author of two horror novels and a number of TV tie-ins, is reviving Dave Robeson’s “Bloodstained Bookshelf,” a running list of forthcoming mystery publications that was long a feature of Kate Derie’s ClueLass Web site, which closed down last month. “[W]ith the support and agreement” of Derie and Robeson, she explains in a note to the Dorothy-L group, she has reintroduced this very useful list as The Mystery Bookshelf, available here. Good luck, Ms. McConnell, and thank you for taking up this challenge.

The Seattle Times has a good piece about Leslie S. Klinger. His previous annotated, three-book collection, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, was a winner in 2004. Now, he has brought forth an equally handsome annotated version of Bram Stoker’s 1897 classic, Dracula. The Times write-up can be found here.

• Also in the spooky spirit of this Friday, Bruce Grossman, who writes in Bookgasm about pulp crime novels both classic and, well, questionable, this week recalls “three books with icons of Halloween in the titles.” His choices include Bats Fly at Dusk, by “A.A. Fair,” a pseudonym used by Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner. I’ve recently had the good fortune to acquire a small trove of Gardner/Fair’s Bertha Cool and Donald Lam private eye novels, including Bats Fly at Dusk. With Grossman’s recommendation, I really look forward to reading it.

• James Hynes offers his top 10 Halloween reads, while Brad Leithauser comes up with his own intriguing rundown of the five best ghost-story books.

• The new James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, continues to raise doubts, this time from CHUD reviewer Devin Faraci. More thoughts on the movie from novelist and Rap Sheet contributor Declan Burke.

• Peter Rozovsky’s latest “Noir at the Bar” event in Philadelphia will be held this Sunday. The guest is Stoker Award-winning novelist Jonathan Maberry. More details can be found here.

• For the true James Bond movie fan: books about the making of the films. Unfortunately, says Double O Section’s Tanner, the new entries in this series are slimmer on the text than the previous installments. Doesn’t anybody read anymore?

• On the DVD release front: The sixth and final season of The Rockford Files, starring James Garner, is due out on January 20 of next year. Meanwhile, the three-disc set Columbo-- Mystery Movie Collection 1990 is scheduled to reach stores on February 3.

• Zoë Sharp is the latest guest blogging author at St. Martin’s Minotaur’s Moments in Crime site. She follows Stuart MacBride, who was a hoot and a half last week.

• Well, so much for Amazon Shorts.

• There’s a nice piece in the Los Angeles Times by Sarah Weinman about the largely forgotten, 19th-century fictional sleuth James Brampton. The piece is here. Hmm. That’s odd. The copy I ordered of Leaves from the Note-Book of a New York Detective: The Private Record of J.B, “edited by” John Babbington Williams, seems to have gone missing in the mail. Hope it shows up soon.

• An Internet Books Database? I like the idea.

• David J. Schow’s Gun Work, the new release from Hard Case Crime, seems to be getting an awful lot of favorable attention. There’s this review from Independent Crime’s Nathan Cain, this other one from Craig Clarke of Somebody Dies, and the author himself steps into the grilling box at The Big Adios. Looks like I’ll have to move that novel up closer to the top of my to-be-read pile.

Trenchant political analysis from novelist Barry Eisler. Boy, I’ll be glad when this current U.S. presidential election is over, Barack Obama begins assembling his cabinet, and we can all go back to obsessing over crime fiction again.

• Gerard Brennan of Crime Scene NI interviews Andrew Pepper, the author of three quite wonderful historical crime novels starring Bow Street Runner Pyke.

• The new, 10th edition of TTA Press’ Crime Wave is now out.

• Steve Brewer--whose first Bubba Mabry mystery, Lonely Street, was recently made into an independent movie--has a few handy suggestions for any future casting directors involved in making films from his fiction.

• And one of today's most reliable and prolific private-eye novelists, Loren D. Estleman, gets the feature treatment in Detroit, Michigan’s mighty Metro Times.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Running with the Bulls

It’s good to be Craig McDonald. The Columbus, Ohio-based journalist came on strong in 2007 with his debut novel, Head Games, which introduced the world to Hector Lassiter. Lassiter, a pulp writer and member of the Lost Generation, counts Ernest “Hem” Hemingway and Orson Welles among his best friends and “lives what he writes and writes what he lives.” Far from being merely a creature of wishful thinking on the author’s part, Lassiter is a terrific lens through which readers can watch history unfold in the troubled 20th century. Head Games is nothing if not bold.

If palling around with the biggest author and biggest filmmaker of the 1900s isn’t bold enough, McDonald includes a tryst with Marlene Dietrich and features Senator Prescott Bush as an unseen villain. The result is a cross-country chase that includes one of America’s most powerful political families, aging Mexican revolutionaries, the FBI, and a bunch of inept frat boys from Yale’s elite Skull and Bones society.

Not content with that, McDonald puts “Hem” front and center in his brand-new follow-up novel, Toros & Torsos, which opens with a string of grisly murders ahead of the killer hurricane that struck the Florida Keys in 1935. As Bleak House releases Toros, McDonald has already racked up Edgar, Anthony, Crimespree, and Gumshoe award nominations for Head Games.

Shortly after McDonald returned home from this year’s Bouchercon convention in Baltimore, I spoke with him about the creation of his protagonist, his interest in Ernest Hemingway, his move from Bleak House books to St. Martin’s Minotaur/Thomas Dunne, and whether Marilyn Monroe might follow Dietrich into Hector Lassiter’s bed.

Jim Winter: You were nominated for an Edgar and an Anthony this year. You have to be floating to have made that kind of splash.

Craig McDonald: It’s the kind of thing you can’t think about or plan for. It’s also particularly wonderful to have nominations for those two awards, as the Edgar judges are fellow authors and the Anthonys are, at base, reader-chosen awards. Head Games was also a finalist for the Crimespree and Gumshoe awards and made several year’s-best lists, so it was a dizzying, gratifying reception for a fairly unusual debut novel. I’m still bowled over by it all.

JW: Hector Lassiter seems to be very much in the mold of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. He even arrives on the scene bearing the all-too-common disdain for Mickey Spillane.

CM: Part of that is just depicting a writer’s natural competitiveness regarding sales figures and public standing; and in that sense, Spillane was kind of the Dan Brown of his day. It’s also emerging from book to book that Hector was one of those writers in Paris in the 1920s and had serious literary ambitions. The third novel (set largely in 1965) will give you more of a sense of Hector’s real literary range and standing as the 1960s are getting on.

JW: How much of Hector is you? And how much is Hector more a product of his times?

CM: I’m going to come clean here for the first time. Usually I say Hector is an amalgam of people like Hemingway, Jonathan Latimer, Cornell Woolrich, and the like, and that’s true to a degree. But there was a particular writer I had in mind. I wasn’t going to point to him as the real inspiration for Hector while he remained alive. All too sadly, I can now confess. Ken Bruen, who read Head Games very early, got it. Craig Holden [Matala, The Jazz Bird] was the other one. Craig wrote me a short note that said, “Hah! Lassiter is James Crumley.” Craig Holden is right. I even gave Hector the same number of wives. Mr. Crumley also very kindly blurbed Head Games, and I still wonder if he maybe tumbled to his inspiration for the character as he read the novel.

That said, in Toros, the Lassiter character is moving much more my way; and in the Hollywood section of Toros, Hector is, for the only time in the series, really about my age and the distance between us is pretty narrow there. But Hector is a 20th-century man, and a veteran, with all that implies.

JW: Some would say bedding Marlene Dietrich would be fanboy fantasy, yet you make the interplay between your protagonist and Dietrich very believable.

CM: Thanks so much, Jim. She’s an interesting woman to write. Marlene approached love and sex in the manner of the men of the time. She wasn’t one for love affairs and wasn’t possessive or one to be possessed. She was a kind of force of nature and very tight with Orson Welles, with Hemingway, and with several other writers of the time. She and Hector would have been inevitable, on many levels.

JW: Some would say George W. Bush’s cameo in Head Games cuts him more slack than usual. Was there a reason for that, or did the story dictate using him as a reluctant player in the game?

CM: Actually, I’ve taken heat from both directions: those who say I was too hard on him, and those who say I didn’t go nearly far enough. For me, Head Games is now nearly four years old and a lot has obviously happened in those years.

But the fact is, I’m writing George W. in period, and writing him as we all are when we’re young and in college (and in his case, coming of age during the 1960s). I was also depicting him as a guy with some real deep and grudge-bearing father issues. My inclination was to go for the character study over the political commentary or subtext, because at the end of the day, I’m writing a novel, not trying to score political points, though I can think of a few crime and mystery writers who would likely disagree with me about those aims.

JW: Do you plan to see Oliver Stone’s movie W?

CM: Nah. Stone’s Kennedy movie left me with enough disquiet about his approach to historical figures and materials [that I decided] to give his Nixon movie, his Castro movie, and this one a wide pass. I’m sitting here now and trying to remember the last decent Oliver Stone movie …

JW: Turning to Hemingway, he is probably your most fully realized character outside of Hector.

CM: Hem’s one of the two or three key figures in Hector’s life. Their relationship to one another, and their respective approaches to writing and the writer’s life, is a major component of this seven-novel-cycle that is the Hector Lassiter series. All seven books are complete and I have the rare luxury of being able to tweak and tie them together to form a bigger, tightly integrated work so I know exactly how Hem fits into that bigger plan. In essence, we’ll eventually get the whole span of their creative lives. One of the novels (the one I originally envisioned being the third to appear, but which will now appear later), is set in one week in Paris in 1924 and we see Hector and Hem as young, unknown writers.

JW: How long have you been interested in Hemingway?

CM: Since my teens, really. I’ve read it all … too much, probably--all the novels and short stories, many times. The posthumous stuff, the letters, the journalism. And I have, literally, a bookcase of stuff on Hem ranging from biographies to memoirs to deep-think scholarly studies. I’m steeped in Hemingway to a level that might well be unhealthy.

JW: I was particularly impressed with how you showed Hemingway in his decline, how he had trouble living up to his own image of himself.

CM: Edmund Wilson said Hemingway was his own worst-invented character, but it goes deeper, for me. As I have a character in Toros say, and I believe this, Hem could only write what he could live or do himself, and as the distance between his fiction and his failing health deepened and widened, he was destroyed by his own self-forged public image. Hem is for many writers what Elvis [Presley] is for musicians: the goal, the tragedy … the great cautionary example.

JW: I notice the follow-up to Toros & Torsos focuses on Hemingway’s death. Was it your original intent to write a sequel about Hemingway?

CM: Print the Legend (coming fall 2009) will really explore those last crazy days of Hem’s, and the FBI’s role in his self-destruction. As I said, I wrote seven novels and Hem figures as an on-the-page character in three of them. He casts a long shadow across the first, Head Games. Originally, I had a planned sequence for these novels in terms of publication order. But my new editor, John Schoenfelder, read all seven novels and wanted to reboot the series at Thomas Dunne with what I regarded as the sixth and seventh novels. So I went with his proposition, and those will now be books numbers three and four to be printed. As John reminded me, time is used in a very unusual way in the Lassiter series, so I don’t need to be slavish to chronology. Originally, Print the Legend would have been book number six, but as it comes right off the closing lines of Toros, it’s going to look planned and inevitable in terms of this now being the third installment.

JW: Toros begins during the run-up and aftermath to the 1935 killer hurricane in the Florida Keys. It might interest you to know I started reading that book the weekend Hurricane Ike reached Ohio.

CM: I was actually working on some promotional things involving Toros and the Great Keys Hurricane when our Midwestern state was struck by Ike. That hard, sustained, hours-long wind was about what I imagined for Toros. Then I went outside and looked at all the roofs stripped of shingles … the broken trees and houses stripped of siding. A Gulf Coast hurricane laying waste to Ohio? It was like another sign of the apocalypse.

JW: And how long did you go without power?

CM: A little over a day. But parts of Columbus went more than a week without power. Then there were water shortages because the water-storage tanks were depleted and took a while to refill because of electrically driven pumps that power them.

JW: Orson Welles also plays a big role in your fiction. Did you find that his voice came naturally, given his larger-than-life persona?

CM: He’s the filmmaker equivalent of Hemingway for me. I know his stuff, backward and forward, and there are many, many interviews with him available to explore and help get at that voice and attitude. He’s comparatively easy for me to catch, I suppose for that reason. For Hem’s voice, I went back to his letters, which are informal and frank and very conversational--a world apart from Hem’s fiction-writing voice.

JW: Did you see the film RKO 281, with Liev Schreiber playing Orson Welles? If so, what did you think?

CM: Afraid I haven’t seen RKO 281. I’m going to have to look it up. The other piece I’d love to see, but haven’t gotten access to yet, is a short film (Five Minutes, Mr. Welles) that Vincent D’Onofrio put together in which he plays Orson Welles prepping to do his famous scene with Joseph Cotten on the Prater Park Ferris Wheel in The Third Man. The story goes [that] Vincent did it to vindicate his own acting skills, because D’Onofrio was upset that after being cast as Welles in the movie Ed Wood, his voice was dubbed by Maurice LaMarche, the guy who voiced the Brain on the [TV cartoon series] Pinky and the Brain.

JW: Getting back to the magnetic Marlene Dietrich, she appears to be the final piece in this trinity in Hector Lassiter’s life: Dietrich, Hemingway, and Welles.

CM: They were a trinity in real life, and they were all iconic; so, yes, there is a tight link there. That said, Orson’s pretty much out of the series after Toros & Torsos.

JW: Any chance that Hector might come across, say, Marilyn Monroe? (OK, I admit: that’s more the interviewer’s fantasy.)

CM: In Head Games, there’s an article written about Hector by his young poet-interviewer, Bud Fiske, that mentions Hector having been spotted with Marilyn on his arm, once, but no, I won’t be doing more with that. The seven books are all in my rear-view mirror, and while there may be tweaks in editing, I know what happens, and when, and there’s a real concentration of stuff in this series that tends to eat up the 1950s and most of the 1960s, taking us well past [Monroe’s] death. Hector just wouldn’t have had time, or he’d have been married. When he’s single, Hector’s quite the lady’s man; but when he’s married, even badly, Hector is still faithful. So I don’t think he and Marilyn happened, or would have--he tends toward strong, self-possessed women.

JW: What about other writers? I’d be curious to see how Hector reacts to Raymond Chandler or William Faulkner. Or perhaps even Ross Macdonald.

CM: Hector was introduced in a short story called “The Last Interview” where he gives short, sharp impressions of [Dashiell] Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, and [Agatha] Christie, among others. That said, other volumes will give us in-person glimpses of Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Lester Dent, and a young Rod Serling, among others. We also will meet the key woman in Hector’s life, another crime novelist more in the Craig Rice-mold, who really made Hector the kind of writer he is.

Hector, like me, would have found Faulkner unreadable. I truly believe there are two camps: Camp Hemingway, and Camp Faulkner.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Cole Gives ’Em “The Business”

Musician Larry Love with author Martina Cole

A major annual event in UK publishing circles is the arrival of a new novel by Martina Cole, one of Britain’s biggest-selling crime writers. Born in 1958 and reared in Essex, an English county that merges into East London (where I worked for more than a decade), her stories explore the struggles of the under-classes and inner-city deprivation, and the links between those and violent crime. I have to warn those of you with milder dispositions: Martina Cole’s work pulls no punches. It’s tough, violent, and replete with profanity. Yet, despite the darkness, her yarns show real heart and compassion amongst the knuckle-dusters, pimps, and murderers about whom she writes.

Her latest work, The Business, is no exception, and upon its release this month, it shot straight to No. 1 on the UK bestseller charts.

I was delighted to receive an invitation from Headline Publishing to attend the launch party for The Business. It was to be held at the exclusive private club Dolce, close by Piccadilly Circus in London’s West End. The invitation indicated that the British blues/alt-country group Alabama 3 would provide the entertainment. This was great news, as I hadn’t seen them perform since they played for Stephen King in 2006. Together with the invitation came a review copy of The Business and this intriguing synopsis of Cole’s new story:
Imelda Dooley is scared. Really scared. She’s played hard and fast and now she’s been caught. She’s pregnant and now she’s on her own. Her father, not a man to mess with, will see that somebody pays for this. And it’s not going to be her. So Imelda Dooley tells a lie. A lie that literally causes murders. When Mary Dooley’s husband is killed in the night’s events, she knows she must graft to keep the family afloat. And graft she does, becoming a name in her own right. But she still has to watch her daughter’s life spiral into a vicious, hate-fuelled cycle of drugs and prostitution. Caught up in the carnage that is Imelda’s existence are Mary’s adored grandchildren, Jordanna and Kenny. Pretty little Jordanna isn’t yet three and she already knows far too much. All she can do is look after her baby brother, Kenny, and try not to draw unwanted attention to herself. Set in the East End of London from the tail-end of the seventies up until the present-day, THE BUSINESS is a tale of drugs, prostitution and a young girl’s fight for survival--against all the odds.
So as I selected a decent suit and dusted off my raincoat, I went back over in my head what I knew about Cole and how she’s managed to remain grounded despite her expanding popularity. What most readers don’t understand is that, as a consequence of her own tough upbringing and early adulthood, she has become an avid lobbyist for women’s rights in the prison system and does charity work for underprivileged women. In fact, she once told me tragic tales of women from South America and Africa who remain incarcerated in the British penal system, because they were so desperate to support their families, they allowed themselves to be duped into becoming drug-running “mules.” Cole helps where she can, as most of these women speak very little English and cry themselves to sleep for the children they left behind.

Martina Cole knows a little about hardships, as Jonathan Margolis of The Guardian explained in 2001:
Cole still lives close to her roots, as well as her material, near Tilbury, though in a big house now rather than the carpetless council flat she shared with her baby when she started writing. She was 20 then, but kept the manuscript of [her first novel] Dangerous Lady in a drawer for a decade. Then an old woman she was nursing told her that when you’re old, it’s the things you didn’t do that you regret, not the things you did. On the way home, she saw an electric typewriter in a shop, bought it for £200 with a tax rebate she’d just received and sat down for six months to re-craft her story. Then she picked an agent, Darley Anderson, from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook because she liked the name and assumed from it that he was a woman. Anderson, an old-school gentleman, thought it at first extraordinary that a woman could write something so gritty, but read it in a day and phoned her immediately. “‘Martina Cole?’, he said, he was ever so posh. I said ‘Yes?’. He said, ‘You are going to be a star’. I was like, “’S’cuse me?’.” Anderson quickly got her a £150,000 publishing deal.
Arriving at Dolce on the appointed night, I was most impressed with the swanky venue. Security was tight; my invitation was carefully cross-checked against the guest list. Inside, the club was heaving, and the wine flowed liberally, courtesy of Headline Publishing, which really knows how to look after one of its major stars. The whole party reminded me of a glitzy film event, which is no surprise, since Cole’s work has been televised for many years and she has written for the small screen herself. This year, she has two shows airing in Britain. ITV3 (which has really begun to focus on crime fiction) is currently broadcasting a documentary series called Martina Cole’s Ladykillers, which probes into the comparatively rare phenomenon of female serial killers. And later in the year we’ll be treated to Martina Cole’s Girl Gangs, another documentary crime series.

No sooner had I shed my raincoat and pulled out my trusty camera, than Cole appeared. Looking at my camera she laughed, which reminded me of the time in 2003 when we met actor Herbert Lom. She kindly signed a copy of The Business, which is to be given away in an upcoming competition in Shots. And as she scribbled some words to that future contest winner, she told me how excited she was that Alabama 3 would be playing at her party.

With the signed novel in my sweaty palms, I left Cole to mingle with her steady stream of admirers. I trod off instead to have a chat with Headline’s senior editor, Vicki Mellor, about a new thriller she’s unleashing called Afraid, by Jack Kilborn. I heard about this book a few years ago, so already knew that “Kilborn” is in fact American wordsmith Joe [J.A.] Konrath. The premise of this forthcoming novel is terrific. I defy anyone not to be hooked by this synopsis:
The U.S. government spends billions of dollars training soldiers to kill. Now they’re attempting an alternative approach. Instead of turning soldiers into killers, the military has trained five psychopathic murderers to be part of a classified Special Forces unit.

Codename: Red Ops.

They are the most fearsome weapon ever created, meant to be dropped behind enemy lines. Their goals: Isolate. Terrorize. Annihilate. Five Hannibal Lecters with Rambo training. But something horrible has happened...

Welcome to Safe Haven, Population 907.

A tiny community of families, retirees, and artists, nestled between Big Lake and Little Lake MacDonald in the northwoods. One road in, one road out, thirty miles away from everything. A town so small and peaceful they don’t even have a full-time police force.

Hell has come to Safe Haven.

On their way to a mission, the Red Ops helicopter has crashed just outside of town. The team is now roaming free in the wilderness, heading for the nearest lights. Heading there to do what they do best.

Soon the phone lines are cut, the cell phones jammed, and the road blocked. Safe Haven’s only chance for survival rests on the shoulders of an aging county sheriff. And as the body count rises, he’s quickly realizing something terrifying--maybe the Red Ops haven’t come to his small town by accident ...

Safe Haven, Wisconsin. Population 907 ... 906 ... 905 ...
I had a chance to talk with Konrath at Bouchercon in Baltimore and was amused to discover that the British are publishing Afraid first, thanks to Mellor, who’s Konrath’s UK editor and has a very keen eye for quality crime fiction. Afraid will be released next month in the UK, but Americans will have to wait until April 2009 for their own edition. As I type these words, a review copy of Afraid is reportedly zinging its way to my mailbox, and trust me, I can’t wait to dig into it. I have a feeling this will be Konrath’s breakout novel.

Also present at the Martina Cole party were Headline publicity supermo* Russ Hulbert and editorial director Jane Morpeth. Morpeth was excited about her recent purchase of UK rights to Carol O’Connell, as she finds that American author’s work stunning. I thanked Jane Morpeth for sending along a copy of O’Connell’s newest, Bone by Bone; she knows that I am a big fan of O’Connell’s Kathleen Mallory books and that O’Connell’s Judas Child (1998) is one of my all time favorite novels.

At this point, Cole swung back my way, and I escorted her outside for a smoke. (Yes, after my valiant attempt to quit the vile weed, I am back to the smoking habit--at least for the short term.) While recharging the nicotine in our systems, we saw the members of Alabama 3 arrive. Spotting Martina, they came over and lit up their own cigarettes. Lead singer-songwriter Larry Love (aka Rob Spragg) stared at me intensely and kept remarking, “I recognize you.” Then he’d laugh. Finally, he said, “Yes, you’re the guy who stuck up our jam session with Stephen King on YouTube, aren’t you?” My laugh in response was more of the nervous sort, as I suddenly worried that he was going to sue me for copyright infringement. But I admitted that the responsibility was mine. After which the group’s manager came over and said, “Man, that clip--it’s been viewed like over 4,000 times!” While Cole was occupied with some of the other smokers, I had a long conversation with the Alabama 3 folks. I asked Larry Love how this cult British band ended up fronting the theme tune to David Chase’s HBO series The Sopranos. He’d obviously been asked this a million times, but remained excited, telling me how they got the gig for The Sopranos--a story that was also reported by BBC Wales:
Welsh singer Rob Spragg, from Nelson, Caerphilly, said they were “blessed” to be associated with the series.

Spragg, better known as Larry Love, said Sopranos writer and creator David Chase was making the same journey as Tony Soprano when he first heard the track.

He told BBC Radio Wales: “Initially I think David was going to have different songs for each episode but he heard our track and said, ‘This is the one’. He didn’t know who we were. He just heard the band was called Alabama 3, which seemed to create some confusion.

“Initially they thought we must be from Alabama, then they thought we were four kids from San Francisco, although the best theory was that we were three young black lads from the Bronx!

“Then of course he found out we were actually a Welshman and a Scotsman living in Brixton, London, pretending that we were from Alabama!”
Following our smokes, Alabama 3 were ushered inside to set up for their gig, but before they left, they invited me to their next concert at The Shepards Bush Empire on Thursday, December 4. As he shoved off, Larry Love said, “I love crime novels!”

As Cole and I rejoined her party, we found it in full swing. She was summoned to the front of the room, where she joined Headline Publishing’s managing director, Martin Neild, and the man who discovered her so long ago, agent Darley Anderson. As the crowd was urged to be quiet, I sat down with Chris Simmons and his partner from Crime Squad.

Neild welcomed us all to this very special party in honor of Martina Cole. He told us how delighted Headline is to have such a wonderful writer and great personality as Cole in its stable. He went on to introduce agent Anderson, who reiterated how pleased he has been to work with Cole all these years. Martina blushed, and it was obvious that she was moved by Anderson’s accolades, especially as he veered off onto the subject of literary snobbery. He recalled: “Once a highly respected literary critic had told Martina that her work would never be considered for the Booker prize, to which Martina in her broad Essex/East London accent had replied sharply, ‘It’s all right, love, the Booker money wouldn’t keep me in cigarettes for a week.’” This story naturally provoked a roar of laughter from the crowd. Anderson then passed the microphone to Martina, who had to talk loudly over the cheering. She delivered some very short but moving remarks, thanking Neild and Anderson, who she considers friends rather than business partners. And she added thanks to the crowd around her, all her friends and colleagues who helped her through the years. She concluded by saying, “Everyone get a drink and let’s listen to Alabama 3,” which was greeted with another round of applause.

As Alabama 3 came to the stage, and waiters and waitresses appeared with finger food, it was time again to mingle. I also mused on how remarkable it was that a single mother like Martina Cole, who’d once been confined to the dreary environs of a council flat, had come to be one of a major publisher’s headline authors. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help listening to the band, especially as Devlin Love closed their set with a heart-wrenching version of Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Devlin dedicated that song to Martina Cole, as he said it was her favorite.

Before I left the party, I went to thank Cole for inviting me. But typically, she just wanted to know was “did you have a good time?” All I could say was “Martina, you are the business.” And with that, I left her with a big hug.

Please understand that Martina Cole has worked brutally hard for the success she now enjoys. No one gave her anything; she has earned her space in the pantheon of legendary crime writers.

I feel I should leave the last word to Cole, who recently told The Telegraph:
“Everyone said I wouldn’t last and I did,” she says. She drains her glass. She is anxious about the interview, “as long as it isn’t all about Martina Cole, Essex girl and I’m the lowest of the low. I do get fed up because I talk to people and the same things come back.” What comes back? “Bank robbers,” she says, and adds a small cry of pain, “awww”.

But you are a crime writer, I say. You write about criminals. “There are a lot of other crime writers and they get respected because they write about the police,” she says. “And I feel sometimes that I don’t because I write about criminals.” She stares into space. “I’ve never pretended to write this great f***ing literary tome.”
You can read more about Cole’s intriguing world here and here.

* American translation: “Great one.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Knight to Remember

(Editor’s note: Today marks the release of Southern California writer Jeri Westerson’s first novel, Veil of Lies, which introduces the character of Crispin Guest, a disgraced 14-century knight turned private detective of sorts in London. In association with that debut, we asked Westerson to give us an idea of where Guest fits into the pantheon of fictional gumshoes. She sent along the response below.)

My series protagonist, Crispin Guest, inhabits my debut medieval mystery in a most unusual way. The novel, Veil of Lies, is styled a “medieval noir,” making Crispin the first hard-boiled private eye in that time period. What does this mean?

If he were talking with Sam Spade, they might very well be discussing the same sorts of things in a similar setting--maybe a rough bar in a dingy part of town; the steps of a manor house; or the cold street, with the light from an open window casting long shadows across their cold-nipped faces.

Before Dashiell Hammett created Spade with the clack of a typewriter key, his ideal of a hard-nosed detective was the nameless Continental Op, who appeared in the magazine Black Mask before he made his novel debut (in Red Harvest).

But it was in 1929, also in the pages of Black Mask, that readers were introduced to Sam Spade. Memorable as a fully formed, rough-hewn private detective, he might be considered the template of the hard-boiled gumshoe, having influenced Raymond Chandler to create his own sleuth, Philip Marlowe. Spade was an original. In fact, he permeates the landscape of American crime fiction so thoroughly, it’s hard to believe he appeared in only one novel, The Maltese Falcon, which had first been serialized in Black Mask. Hammett himself said of his creation in the introduction to the 1934 edition of The Maltese Falcon,
“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and in their cockier moments thought they approached. For your private detective does not--or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague--want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent by-stander or client.”
Sam Spade did reappear in several short stories in 1932, and in two Hollywood movie incarnations (in 1931 and 1936) before John Huston made his perfect film in 1941 with Humphrey Bogart. He also showed up in numerous radio plays, but nothing measured up to that story with the “Black Bird.”

In Sam Spade, we have a lone detective, living by his own code and maintaining a keen eye for justice. In his work, he has seen the very wealthy and the lowest dregs of society. In both, he knows that no depths will go unplumbed for the greedy to get what they want.

Spade was of course my model for Crispin Guest. In researching the idea of a pulp detective in a medieval setting, I kept going back to the image of the lone wolf--the man who stands alone against the dirty and lawless of society. Maybe he was an idealist. Maybe he just knew right from wrong no matter what.

Hammett brought to life his detective from his own experiences as a Pinkerton agent. And yet, unlike many hard-boiled detective novels to follow, The Maltese Falcon was written in third-person. And so is Veil of Lies. Perhaps Hammett, like me, wanted just that bit of distance between character and reader, just enough to look a little beyond the protagonist’s shoulder into the dark and sticky gloom of a midnight street.

That’s who I wanted to write about, live with, agonize over. What better way to epitomize a character who holds to a chivalric code of seeking justice and upholding the law than an actual knight? Of course, this would have to be a knight who no longer held that title, a man who remains stalwart in his ideals, no matter the cost. When Crispin is exiled from the court of King Richard II and loses all that defines him, he must remake himself into a reluctant detective, using his wits and fighting skills in the only way available to him. Still regarded with deep suspicion by the sheriffs of London, Crispin must travel his own dark paths while keeping his tattered honor intact.

Both Spade and Crispin are taken in by a pretty face, but not for long. They will not cross their staunch code for any woman. No one and nothing gets in the way of that. They are both familiar with the use of violence to get out of scrapes, and their less-than-glamorous lifestyles inform their less-than-stellar relationships. In Spade’s world, San Francisco was the heartbeat of the plot. In Crispin’s world, it is 14th-century London. The British capital is just another character in the milieu of this medieval noir, serving as conscience and metaphor. The wealthy and the poor are not merely divided by a river, but by a gap beyond measure.

If Sam Spade had lived in the middle ages, he would have known Crispin. They might even have grabbed a bowl of ale together at Crispin’s favorite haunt, the Boar’s Tusk. They might have been friends. They’d certainly have understood each other.

READ MORE: Chapter 1 of Veil of Lies; Crispin Guest’s Blog.

High-Class Complaints

I feel as though I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last month. Wait: I kinda have been. But as of today, I’m back in my studio looking forward to digging once more into my current work in progress. It calls me now, I’ve been feeling it. On the one hand, I can’t wait to get back to work. But on the other, of course, I’ve been having so much fun lately!

Most recently, I was at the annual Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival on beautiful Granville Island in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Last Friday I did an event called “Cement Shoes” with Lisa Lutz (Curse of the Spellmans), John Connolly (The Reapers), and Mark Billingham (In the Dark), and moderated by Stephen Miller (The Last Train to Kazan).

That event was held at the Arts Club Theatre, one of the largest professional stages in the city and it appeared to be a fairly full house. I’d been present at Bouchercon in Baltimore earlier this month when Billingham hosted the Anthony Awards presentation, so I knew how very funny he is when you stick a microphone in his hand. In addition to being a stunning author, he is a former comedian and performer, and it shows. As a result, when the order in which we would speak was being determined, I pleaded to not go behind Billingham. After all, he’d made me laugh so hard in Baltimore, I knew I didn’t want to have to follow that!

Consequently, I followed John Connolly and--much to my surprise and dismay--he was funny as well. The three of us were sharing the stage with Lisa Lutz who, of course, is also quite humorous. The result was, I think, a terrifically entertaining panel. I know I had a great time, and the audience really seemed to as well.

On Saturday I was reunited with Lutz for the “Femme Fatale” panel. We were joined by German author Leonie Swann (Three Bags Full), with the moderator once again being Stephen Miller. Considering the name of that panel, I thought about donning the little black dress I’d worn to a fund-raiser a few days earlier but, honestly? At 10:30 in the morning, I was afraid people might just think I hadn’t made it home from some big revelry the night before!

And, naturally with this group, it was great fun. Lisa and I had warmed up the day before and so came prepared to have a good time. And Leonie’s stories about the crime-solving sheep in her novel had the place in stitches.

While the Vancouver Writers Festival offers a mystery component, it’s mostly not geared in that direction. One of the things Billingham said really resonated with me. During our “Cement Shoes” panel, Mark said that he figured crime fictionists were like the smokers of the literary world. You look outside at them, perhaps wrinkle your nose and turn away, but you snatch longing peeks out at them because they look like they’re having such a good time.

It seems to me we did that part up at Vancouver: having fun, laughing, talking about things close to our hearts and helping each other along because--for whatever reason--that’s what mystery writers do and what mystery seems always to bring.

(Cross-posted, with photographs, at Linda L. Richards’ blog.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Aloha, Elaine

Mystery community social maven and author Elaine Flinn passed away this last Saturday, the result of complications due to pneumonia and cancer. Elaine’s light was bright and she will be remembered for her talent in bringing us the Molly Doyle mysteries as well as a delicious, playful bitchiness combined with generosity of spirit that were the delight of all who new her.

A former San Francisco Bay area antiques dealer, Flinn dreamed up a sleuth with whom she had a great deal in common. Carmel, California, antiques dealer Molly Doyle was introduced in Dealing in Murder. Flinn’s 2003 debut novel was nominated for the Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry, and Anthony awards in its publication year.

In 2004, Flinn’s follow-up novel, Tagged for Murder, won the Barry Award. Two more Molly Doyle novels would follow--Deadly Collection in 2005 and Deadly Vintage just last year. And though all of Flinn’s novels were well-received and her Molly Doyle novels earned her a dedicated following, the author was nearly as well known for her vibrant presence in the mystery community.

Flinn was one of the founding members of the Anthony Award-nominated blog, Murderati. It was during her time at Murderati that Flinn developed the Evil-E persona for which she came to be so well-known.

As Evil-E, Flinn interviewed authors, asking them sometimes ridiculous though always interesting questions. During the time that Flinn conducted her “On the Bubble” interviews, she subjected many authors to her delightful silliness, including Ian Rankin, Barry Eisler, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Tess Gerritson, Chris Grabenstein, Alexandra Sokoloff, Pari Noskin-Taichert, yours truly, and others.

Today on the mystery listserv Dorothy-L, author Betty Webb (Desert Cut) offered her lament to the group. “Not only were they clever,” Webb said of Flinn’s books, “but they were sweet, too--and that’s something very hard to pull off.”

Perseverance Press editor Meredith Phillips added that Flinn “was a true original. Elaine really loved and embraced life, with a wonderful, fun-loving spirit.”

L.J. Sellers, author of The Sex Club, said that “Elaine was vivacious, generous, funny, and talented. I will miss her personally, and the mystery community will not be the same without her quick wit and great laugh.”

A memorial will be held in Carmel, California. Details of that service have not yet been announced.

READ MORE:Farewell to a Friend,” by Louise Ure (Murderati); “Remembering Elaine Flinn,” by Ali Karim (Shotsmag Confidential).

History Makes News

British correspondent Ali Karim just phoned in to tell us that the winner of this year’s Ellis Peters Historical Award for crime fiction is Stratton’s War, by Laura Wilson (Orion). That announcement was made during a ceremony this evening in London.

Also on the shortlist of nominees for the 2008 Ellis Peters commendation were: The Death Maze, by Ariana Franklin (Bantam Press); A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr (Quercus); Death on a Branch Line, by Andrew Martin (Faber and Faber); Revelation, by C.J. Sansom (Macmillan); and Bleeding Heart Square, by Andrew Taylor (Michael Joseph).

Four additional books appeared on the judges’ longlist but didn’t make the second cut: Last Nocturne, by Marjorie Eccles (Allison & Busby); A Mortal Curiosity, by Ann Granger (Headline); Inspector Ghote’s First Case, by H.R.F. Keating (Allison & Busby); and A Vengeful Longing, by R.N. Morris (Faber and Faber).

Previous winners of the Ellis Peters Award can be found here. To read the opening chapter of Stratton’s War, click here.

Finding Mr. Wrong

Assessing the new novel Angel’s Tip, Alafair Burke’s sophomore outing for Detective Ellie Hatcher (following last year’s Dead Connection), January Magazine contributing editor Jim Winter concludes that “It’s not a perfect thriller, but it delivers where it counts.”

The story begins with the slaying of Chelsea Hart, a young Indiana woman who’s found (by Hatcher, no less) dead after a night spent on the town in New York City with some of her spring-break buddies. Hatcher and her new partner, J.J. Rogan, are handed the case, which doesn’t at first look like the work of a serial-killer, but may be just that. “The connective thread is there, if not readily apparent, in the unsolved murders of three women five years earlier,” Winter writes. “Still, that long-ago destroyer targeted women from New York’s seedier side, not fresh-faced college girls from out of town. Regardless, Ellie Hatcher can sense the link.”

You will find the full review here.

The Last of Tony Hillerman

Celebrated New Mexico-based crime novelist Tony Hillerman passed away on Sunday afternoon. As the Associated Press reports:
Tony Hillerman, author of the acclaimed Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels and creator of two of the unlikeliest of literary heroes--Navajo police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee--died Sunday of pulmonary failure. He was 83.

Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, said her father’s health had been declining in the last couple years and that he was at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque when he died at about 3 p.m.
More details can be found here.

In her own remembrance of Hillerman’s fiction and influence, New York Times crime-fiction critic Marilyn Stasio recalls:
Mr. Hillerman’s evocative novels, which describe people struggling to maintain ancient traditions in the modern world, touched millions of readers, who made them best sellers. But although the themes of his books were not overtly political, he wrote with a purpose, he often said, and that purpose was to instill in his readers a respect for Indian culture. The plots of his stories, while steeped in contemporary crime and its consequences, were invariably instructive about ancient tribal beliefs and customs, from purification rituals for a soldier returned from a foreign war to incest taboos for a proper clan marriage.

“It’s always troubled me that the American people are so ignorant of these rich Indian cultures,” Mr. Hillerman once told Publishers Weekly. “I think it’s important to show that aspects of ancient Indian ways are still very much alive and are highly germane even to our ways.”

Mr. Hillerman was not the first mystery writer to set a story on Indian land or to introduce a full-blooded Native American detective to crime literature. In 1946 the grand prize in the first short-story competition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine went to Manly Wade Wellman for the first of two stories he wrote with an Indian protagonist.

But beginning with “The Blessing Way” in 1970 the 18 novels Mr. Hillerman set on Southwest Indian reservations featuring Lieut. Joe Leaphorn and Sgt. Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police, brought a new dimension to the character of the traditional genre hero.
The Albuquerque Journal, meanwhile, offers somewhat more of a glimpse into the author’s life and lasting impact:
“He grew up humbly, and that’s always who he was,” his daughter Anne Hillerman said. “Despite all the honors and recognition he got, he always stayed the same guy.”

Tony Hillerman called New Mexico home for more than 50 years, but his roots go back to Sacred Heart, Okla., where he was born to a family of farmers in 1925.

He fought in World War II, receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. After the war, a reporter read letters Hillerman had sent to his mother. She saw talent and told him to pursue journalism.

“He belongs to a generation that is about to disappear over the edge of history,” said a New York Times review about his memoirs, “Seldom Disappointed,” calling them “laced with humor and worldly wisdom.”

Hillerman could always tell a good story, his daughter said.

“He really loved a good conversation, and he was a good listener. He was a natural storyteller,” she said. “When my brothers and sisters were growing up, he would tell bedtime stories, and we would always be the heroes of the stories.”

After the war, Hillerman studied journalism at the University of Oklahoma and received his degree in 1948.

He worked at newspapers in Texas before moving to Santa Fe to work for the United Press International, a news-wire service. He later became the editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Hillerman moved to Albuquerque to teach at the University of New Mexico in the early 1960s.

“He was really an outstanding person. ... He was a real asset to the university and a great source of information. He was not only an outstanding writer but a great teacher and mentor,” said John Perovich, a former UNM president who worked with Hillerman when both were in the university’s administration.

Teaching, just like writing, was always his passion, Perovich said.

“I don’t know any journalism student that didn’t think the world of Tony,” he said. “And of course, he trained many of New Mexico’s newspaper people.”
(Sorry, the full Journal story is accessible only to newspaper subscribers or through a trial offer.)

More personal reflections on the life and times of Tony Hillerman can be found here, here, and here. Lists of Hillerman’s fiction and non-fiction books can be found here and here.

The writer’s death comes less than two weeks before The Hillerman Conference, scheduled to take place this year at the Hyatt Regency in Albuquerque, New Mexico, November 5-9.

(Contributions to this post from Linda L. Richards.)

READ MORE:Tony Hillerman Is Dead,” by Carolyn Kellogg (Los Angeles Times); “In Memorium: Tony Hillerman” (Prairie Sun Rising); “In Appreciation of Tony Hillerman,” by Marjorie Kehe (Christian Science Monitor); “Thanks for Everything, Tony,” by Kate Flora (Writers Plot); “Man of Enchantment,” by Mary Lynn Reed (The Lipstick Chronicles); “Mystery Novels, with a Southwestern Flair,” by Lynn Neary (National Public Radio); “A 1001 Midnights Review: Tony Hillerman--Dance Hall of the Dead,” by Marcia Muller (Mystery*File).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

It’s About Time

I’ve said before that mass-market original paperbacks are the Rodney Dangerfields of publishing--they don’t get enough respect. Sure, many of them have cats solving crimes, or they include recipes and tips on everything from quilt-making to home renovation. But many are more than worth the price of entry.

This year, judges in the mystery/thriller category for the annual Los Angeles Times Book Awards--including me--have received several worthy contenders in the mass-market originals category. Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime has given us his own highly amusing publishing “memoir,” Fifty-to-One. And we have under consideration Christa Faust’s sexy and sharp Money Shot, set inside the porno industry, along with the amazing P.J. Parrish’s South of Hell.

Now comes a terrific new contender from T.J. MacGregor, Running Time, which won me over because of my love for time-travel stories. Running Time continues the adventures of Nora McKee, whose involvement with the rigors of traveling through time began in last year’s Kill Time.

Nora was having lunch with her husband, Jake, at their favorite restaurant in Blue River, Massachusetts, and was about to tell him that she wanted a divorce. But then two agents from the thinly disguised Federal Department of Freedom and Security (known as Freeze on the street), who wear uniforms “the color of rich, bitter chocolate,” grab Jake and carry him off to a waiting van, knocking Nora down when she tries to intervene. After that, Jake disappears into the mists of time.

Kill Time and now Running Time take their place on my short list of best time-travel stories, a list that also includes Screenplay, by Macdonald Harris; Time and Again, by Jack Finney; Somewhere in Time, by Richard Matheson; and The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger.

As I asked last year, what titles am I missing?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“Despair,” by Vladamir Nabokov

(Editor’s note: This is the 29th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Robert Eversz, one of the founders of the Prague Summer Writer’s Workshop, now the Prague Summer Program, and most recently the Writer in Residence at Western Michigan University. Eversz is also the author of five novels featuring paparazza Nina Zero, including Burning Garbo [2003], Digging James Dean [2005], and Zero to the Bone [2006]. He currently lives outside Washington, D.C.)

I first discovered Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair on the bookshelves of an English language bookshop in Prague, Czech Republic, not far from Petrin Hill, where this ecstatically written tale of madness and murder begins. I’d been casting about for literary models that might inspire the novel I was then writing about an expatriate American compelled to commit murder in post-communist Prague. After thumbing through Despair’s first chapter, in which the narrator, Hermann Karlovich, alludes to murder, admits to lying deliberately to the reader, and protests that the accusations of madness against him are false, I realized that I had found not only an inspiration for my own work but also a little-known classic of crime fiction and one of the greatest doppelgänger stories ever written.

Some priests of literary art and genre purists might object to the classification of anything written by Nabokov as a crime novel. They might protest that literature must have firmly fixed and impermeable borders, keeping literary fiction free of the blood-lust common to genre fiction, which is, after all, nothing but entertainment. I respectfully disagree. Crime fiction is a genre in the same way that coming-of-age fiction is a genre--a simple category of composition characterized by a similarity of subject matter. Novels that contain a crime or crimes at the center of their composition, such as Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union--all nominated as best books of their respective years by the International Association of Crime Writers--are crime novels in this classification.

The protagonist of Despair, Hermann Karlovich, is a German chocolate manufacturer of Russian birth writing about the events that brought him, in a fugitive’s disguise, to a small hotel in the south of France. The story he tells begins with a chance meeting of a vagabond sprawled motionless under a thornbush on Prague’s Petrin Hill. Hermann at first suspects the vagabond is either dead or deathly ill, and with one toe of his elegant shoe flicks the cap off his face. The man’s features astonish him. He doubts the reality of what he sees, doubts his own sanity. He writes, “While I looked, everything within me seemed to lose hold and come hurtling down from a height of ten stories. I was gazing at a marvel.” Hermann gives the vagabond a cigarette and engages him in conversation, astonished that he doesn’t see through their class differences to the remarkable similarity of their physical appearances. “Our resemblance struck me as a freak bordering on the miraculous,” Hermann writes. “What interested him was mainly my wishing to see any resemblance at all. He appeared to my eyes as my double, that is, as a creature bodily identical with me. It was his absolute sameness which gave me so piercing a thrill.”

Back in Berlin, Hermann sinks again into the comfortable monotony of his life, bored with his childish and adoring wife, and fixated on the remarkable resemblance he believes to exist between himself and the vagabond. Though a humble manufacturer of chocolates, Hermann considers himself an artist at heart, and a gifted writer who begins his tale by remarking, “If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness ...” He then botches what he wishes to write and stops, starts, stops, and starts again, declaring, “Dull work recounting all this. Bores me to death ... An author’s fondest dream is to turn the reader into a spectator; is this ever attained?” As Hermann grows more distracted by his dreams of art, he pays less attention to his business, neglecting it to the verge of bankruptcy. He remembers his double, the vagabond, and hatches an insurance scheme which he believes will be a work of art in itself, dazzling in its planning and execution.

Nabokov’s first-person narration captures the inner machinations of a brilliant but deluded mind at work, a mind driven to contemplate, then plan and commit a murder as a work of art. Readers familiar with the fiction of Jim Thomson can place this work next to The Killer Inside Me and examine these first-person accounts of murderers approached from opposite ends of the literary spectrum. Hermann Karlovich is the first incarnation of a specific type of addled criminal consciousness by Nabokov later reborn in the characters of Charles Kinbot from Pale Fire and Humbert Humbert of Lolita. “My hands tremble,” Hermann writes early on. “I want to shriek or to smash something with a bang. This mood is hardly suitable for the bland unfolding of a leisurely tale. My heart is itching, a horrible sensation. Must be calm, must keep my head.” Of course, Hermann doesn’t, and part of the joy of this tale is watching his arrogance and delusions come crashing against the hard earth of reality.

Nabokov chafed against the literary establishment throughout his career, authoring texts that were banned by the most powerful nations of the time; the land of his birth, Russia, banned everything he wrote, the UK and France both banned Lolita, and it took that same book four years to find a U.S. publisher brave enough to take it on. In the preface to the reworked edition of Despair published in 1965, Nabokov penned a sentiment more to the dark heart of crime fiction by Thompson and James M. Cain than to the literary fiction of his time. “Despair ...,” Nabokov wrote, “has no social comment to make, no message to bring in its teeth. It does not uplift the spiritual organ of man, nor does it show humanity the right exit. It contains far fewer ‘ideas’ than do those rich vulgar novels that are acclaimed so hysterically in the short echo-walk between the ballyhoo and the hoot.”

Vladimir Nabokov is one of the few, true, genius outlaws of 20th-century literature.

The Ghosts of Reads Past

Among the other worthy but “forgotten books” being touted today around the blogosphere are: Dark Wanton, by Peter Cheyney; The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker; Five Minutes with a Stranger, by Miles Tripp; Fat Chance, by Keith Laumer; Cajun Nights, by D.J. Donaldson; Just Another Day in Paradise, by A.E. Maxwell; and John the Balladeer, by Manly Wade Wellman. In addition, series organizer Patti Abbott features several other books on her own Web site, including The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, and The Last Goodbye and The Blood of Angels, by Reed Arvin. Also refer to Abbott’s site for a complete list of today’s participating blogs.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bullet Points: The One More Milestone Edition

• The Gumshoe Site reports that Joseph Wambaugh has won the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association’s 2008 T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award for his latest novel, Hollywood Crows (Little, Brown). Also competing for that commendation were: An Incomplete Revenge, by Jacqueline Winspear (Picador); Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais (Simon & Schuster); Judas Horse, by April Smith (Knopf); Oscar Season, by Mary McNamara (Simon & Schuster); and Snitch Jacket, by Christopher Goffard (Overlook/Rookery).

• Speaking of The Gumshoe Site, its creator and editor, Jiro Kimura, has posted his “rogues’ gallery” of photographs from the recent Bouchercon in Baltimore. For additional shots, see the selection of Ali Karim’s work that was posted in The Rap Sheet.

Blogger Randy Johnson reverts to teenager-hood in the presence of the complete Man from U.N.C.L.E. series on DVD.

• Even though some in the London press are noticeably unimpressed by the forthcoming, 22nd James Bond, Quantum of Solace; and even though the captivating Eva Green will apparently not reprise her Vesper Lynd role in this new picture, I’m willing to sample Solace for myself. Having seen 21 Bond adventures already, I am obviously addicted.

• All Bond, all the time. Total Film magazine is rolling out a month’s worth of content to celebrate the debut of Quantum of Solace. My favorite features thus far: “A-List Actors Who Must Never Be Bond” (stick to your day job, Johnny Depp); “9 Sexy Starlets Who Should Be Bond Girls” (Kate Beckinsale in an Ursula Andress bikini--I’d pay triple for the tickets to see that one); and “Real-Life Celebrities Who Should Be Bond Villains” (Rupert Murdoch, yes, but how about the erratic John McCain, too?).

• Lee Goldberg considers the worst Bond film moments.

• Author Anthony Neil Smith is the latest podcaster at CrimeWAV, reading his story “Psycho Redneck Pick-up Truck Killing Spree.”

• Thirty years after publishing The Stand, Stephen King tells Salonwhat haunts him about religion and today’s politics.”

• Uh-oh. It looks as if plans are delayed as far as turning the 1970s British TV series The Persuaders! into a big-screen hit. According to the blog Double O Section, one of the film’s stars, Steve Coogan, told Total Film magazine that “it’s in development hell …,” but not dead yet. “The actor seems confident that The Persuaders! will still find its time; that time just hasn’t come yet.” For more on the original series, starring Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, check out Permission to Kill’s developing commentary about its individual episodes.

• Screenwriter David Mills offers up some tidbits about the proposed HBO-TV dramatic series Tremé, from The Wire’s David Simon. Read his comments here.

• What sorts of books are readers turning to in these bad economic times? Cookbooks and crime fiction, according to Reuters.

Zöe Sharp submits her novel Third Strike to Marshal Zeringue’s “Page 69 Test.” You’ll find the results here.

• Hard Case Crime’s Charles Ardai talks with National Public Radio.

• B.V. Lawson champions established authors who produce short-story collections.

• With the 125th anniversary of Sherlock Holmes’ debut in print coming this Christmas season, the magazine Mental Floss invites you to take a not-too-difficult quiz that tests your recollection of the revered Holmes canon.

The Republican Party has fallen and it can’t get up. But at least this and this give me hope for the country’s future.

• I’m not usually persuaded by book trailers, but the one created for John le Carré’s new novel, A Most Wanted Man, has caused me to move that book up in my TBR pile.

• And just five months after The Rap Sheet counted its 300,000th visitor, that little tabulator at the bottom of our right-hand column clicked over to 400,000. I want to thank everyone who’s stuck with and contributed to this blog over the last two and a half years. Of all the things I’ve done, writing-wise, during the last few years, this blog probably brings me the most satisfaction. Which is funny, when you consider that I don’t make one thin dime from writing and editing the thing …