Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bullet Points: New Year’s Eve Edition

• For this last wrap-up post of 2008, let me begin by mentioning Janet Rudolph’s rundown of New Year’s-related mysteries. Just remember to put down that copy of Lee Harris’ The New Year’s Eve Murder or Jeffery Deaver’s The Devil’s Teardrop in time to watch the televised midnight festivities in New York City or your own hometown.

• Richard Helms, editor of The Back Alley, has posted the latest edition of his fine Webzine. “This is our All-Canadian issue,” he explains, “featuring authors from the land of Labatts and back bacon. Featured authors include Derringer Award winner Nick Andreychuk, Art Montague, Claude Lalumiere, Jason S. Ridler, Steve Olley, and Matthew Fries. We’ll also have a reprint of a 1914 article from The New York Times reviewing and discussing Frank Norris’s first novel, Vandover and the Brute, and Part Four of our serialization of Norris’s massive 1901 naturalistic proto-noir work, McTeague.” Look for the new edition here.

• Meanwhile, Geoff Eighinger reports that the first edition of his new crime-fiction Webzine, Crooked, is now available online. He says it features “short stories from Sandra Seamans, Albert Tucher, Kaye George, Michael S. Chong, Eric Beetner, Cormac Brown and Sandra Ruttan. Also included is an interview with Charles Ardai.” I look forward to seeing the finished, PDF product. Unfortunately, my computer so far refuses to let me look. Try your own luck here.

• Two other Webzine bits: The Winter 2008 edition of Mysterical-E has been posted, and this week’s short-fiction offering from Beat to a Pulp is “Disimpaction,” by Glenn Gray.

• Bookgasm gets in its last end-of-2008 posts today. Editor Rod Lott proclaims Max Allan Collins’ most recent Hard Case Crime paperback, The First Quarry, to be this year’s best novel. He also liked Joseph Wambaugh’s Hollywood Crows, “a seriocomic cop drama that’s stuck with me all year long.” Lott has more reservations about other books produced during the last 12 months. Read all of his comments here. Elsewhere in Bookgasm, “Bullets, Broads, Blackmail & Bombs” columnist Bruce Grossman offers up a list of 10 “great” books from 2008, including Dave Zeltserman’s Small Crimes, Tom Piccirilli’s The Cold Spot, and ThugLit editor Todd Robinson’s short-fiction anthology, Hardcore Hardboiled. More here.

Dragnet, Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone are among the many early American TV shows set to be honored with U.S. postage stamps in 2009. Learn more by clicking here, here, and here.

• The Drowning Machine’s Corey Wilde presents his first Lowhead Dam Awards for Crime Fiction, honoring books that particularly caught his attention over the last twelvemonth--both new and older titles. Look for the results here.

• Who are the long-missing fictional detectives readers most want to see return in new books? According to an unscientific poll conducted by Sons of Spade, the winner is Jeremiah Healy’s Boston private eye, John Francis Cuddy, who was last seen in Spiral (1999). It should be mentioned that these results are rather different from what The Rap Sheet found when it conducted a similar survey in 2006. Our findings can be revisited here.

• Super-sleuth Sexton Blake, who was something of a publishing phenomenon back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is set to make a comeback in Great Britain, both in print and on the radio. (Hat tip to Bish’s Beat.)

• Lend her your ears: Euro Crime’s Karen Meek reveals her “favourite audio books of 2008.”

Mystery Scene editor Kate Stine is giving away free copies of her excellent magazine. “All anybody has to do is go to and request one, no obligation,” she explains. Click here to send an e-mail note asking for a copy of your own. (I don’t know whether you can request a particular edition, but it’s worthy trying.) This offer is valid only for U.S. residents.

• Author Leighton Gage has some ideas about how he’d cast a movie made from Buried Strangers, his second mystery featuring Brazilian Chief Inspector Mario Silva. He shares some of his choices with Marshal Zeringue at My Book, the Movie. To learn more about Gage, check out Crime Scraps’ three-part interview with the author, here, here and here.

• Sandra Ruttan (The Frailty of Flesh) is interviewed by Shots contributor Damian Seaman.

• Am I the only person who’d never heard of Warner Baxter’s World War II-era Crime Doctor film series before Ivan G. Shreve Jr. started writing about it at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear? My Netflix list keeps growing longer and longer ...

• One more for the Netflix stack: The Persuaders!: 3 Film Collection, which according to Double O Section “collects all three Persuaders! theatrical releases from the early Seventies: Mission: Monte Carlo, Sporting Chance and The London Conspiracy.” Read more on the set here.

• And this is too bad. Crimespree Cinema’s Jeremy Lynch reports that In Electric Mist, the long-awaited film version of James Lee Burke’s 1993 novel, In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, is headed straight for DVD.

• More bad news, this time from Independent Crime. Writes Nathan Cain: “I was disappointed to find out today that Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards have discontinued their podcast Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed. You can read their goodbye message here. The good news is that all their episodes are still available, and the change seems to have come, not out of a lack of interest, but because both men have had kids, and jobs, and other good things to put their effort into, including a possible book based on their other podcast, Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir, which still seems to be going strong.”

• They just don’t make TV ads anymore the way they used to do ...

• A little musical tribute to the late, great jazz musician Freddie Hubbard, who died earlier this week at age 70:

• The worst Americans of 2008? Here’s your list.

• I have to admit, I’ve never so much as tried enjoying a novel on an electronic reader such as Amazon’s Kindle. However, e-books are evidently still being turned out for consumers around the world. And sales achievements continue to be watched. According to Mike Stotter’s Shotsmag Confidential blog, “[UK publisher Faber and Faber] is seeing its digital publishing take off, with the first milestone passed this week--sales of 500 copies of the ebook of the new P.D. James, The Private Patient, released simultaneously with the hardback, on 4 September, and priced the same (£18.99). The Private Patient is far and away the e-bestseller and has topped [bookstore] Waterstone’s charts, but the majority of the James backlist is now available, with those titles selling at the regular paperback price of £6.99. The sales are ‘smaller but solid’.”

• Mary Higgins Clark and daughter Carol Higgins Clark talk about their books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Rhys Bowen interviews Jan Burke, whose brand-new novel is called The Messenger.

• There’s a collection of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s medically themed short stories available? Yes, please!

• Tony Spinosa (aka Reed Farrel Coleman) submits his second Joe Serpe novel, The Fourth Victim, to the infamous Page 99 Test. Results are here.

• Finally, I really ought to get around to reading one or two of Thomas B. Dewey’s novels in 2009. This definitely represents a hole in my education.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Front of the Class

In 2007, The Rap Sheet began what we hope will be a long-enduring and annual tradition of asking readers to choose the year’s best crime novel cover. Several of us have been keeping track of the artwork that has graced this genre’s book jackets over the last 12 months, and we have finally winnowed down (from an original set of some three dozen candidates) what we believe are the 12 most distinguished covers produced in 2008. Undoubtedly, there will be readers who disagree with our selections, and say that other choices should have been made. Indeed, those of us who put this list together pushed our individual sets of contenders, and in the end none of us got everything he or she wanted. A few nominees were especially hard to set aside, but in the end, we arrived at a rundown of book jackets that work well in terms of artwork, typography, and message.

Two patterns can be discerned by looking over our choices for this year. They suggest not only something about our tastes in book design, but also trends in the business.

First, there are several principally black-and-white covers here, employing minimal typography. We hadn’t really noticed this as a trend, until we laid out all of our options end to end. Let me note it’s a stylistic inclination that we like very much. However, as Kevin Burton Smith, a longtime January Magazine contributor and the creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, wrote to me recently: “I shudder to think how bleak mystery bookstores will look once [this trend] catches on. And how many moody stock photos will be used again and again and again. And how that clean, simple typography look will soon disappear once the marketing departments realize how much clean, unobstructed space will be available to fill with copy.”

The second thing to notice is that two of the 12 candidates below (The Chinese Parrot, an Academy Chicago Publishers reissue of Earl Derr Biggers’ second Charlie Chan novel from 1926, and Linda L. Richard’s Death Was the Other Woman from St. Martin’s Minotaur) boast retro-pulp looks. This is a more obvious trend in the genre--and another one to be applauded, at least in the short-term. Paperback publisher Hard Case Crime has been a leader in the campaign to take crime fiction back to its mid-20th-century pulp days, featuring original illustrations by classic masters such as Robert McGinnis and more modern talents like Ricky Mujica on their book fronts. But other houses are now starting to pick up on the same style. Commissioning fresh artwork or photography is certainly a welcome development, especially when you consider how many publishers today are prepared to cheap out and employ already overused stock photography, rather than pay the higher cost of creating unique art for their covers. On the other hand, too much of a good thing is, well, too much, and there’s the possibility of excess in this turn toward pulpish illustrations. Let us hope there will not come a day when we crave stock photos, just as a change from rack after rack of McGinnis rip-offs.

With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s get to the real purpose here: choosing 2008’s most accomplished crime-fiction cover. Of the dozen contenders below, just two--Ian Fleming’s You Only Live Twice (part of a series of reissued James Bond novels from Penguin UK) and Howard Engel’s East of Suez (from Penguin Canada)--come from beyond the U.S. borders. However, almost half were written by non-American wordsmiths. Included here are detective novels, historical thrillers, and both series works and standalones.

We’ve made our choices, now it’s your turn. After studying the nominated book covers, go to the end of this post to vote for your favorites. You can choose as many jackets as you wish. We will leave this cover contest open for the next week and a half, until midnight on Friday, January 9. Then we’ll report the results.

Oh, and if you think we have missed mentioning some other handsome crime-fiction cover from the last year, please let us know in the Comments section. Just be sure to include a URL with your suggestion, so readers can see the alternative jacket for themselves.

Hail and Farewell

I usually put together an end-of-the-year wrap-up post recalling all of the people from the crime-fiction community who died over the previous 12 months, but this time, B.V. Lawson of In Reference to Murder has beat me to the punch.

Among the many deceased standouts she mentions are George C. Chesbro, author of the “Mongo the Magnificent” thrillers; Michael Crichton; James Crumley, perhaps best remembered for his 1978 novel, The Last Good Kiss; social maven and author Elaine Flinn; Tony Hillerman; short-story master Edward D. Hoch; the much-underappreciated Arthur Lyons, creator of private eye Jacob Asch; Stephen Marlowe, known for his novels featuring world-traveling private eye Chester Drum; Fletch creator Gregory Mcdonald; Julian Rathbone; Shamus- and Edgar-winning author Benjamin M. Schutz; former first daughter-turned-author Margaret Truman (Daniel); Dutch crime novelist Janwillem van de Wetering, known for his yarns about Amsterdam cops Henk Grijpstra and Rinus de Gier; and author Phyllis A. Whitney, who passed away in February of this year at age 104.

To Lawson’s list, I would like to add Matthew J. Bruccoli, onetime co-editor of The New Black Mask magazine; Susanna Yager, crime-fiction critic for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph; the great actor Paul Newman, who twice delivered Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer to movie screens; Barry Morse, co-star of the original series The Fugitive; authors Hillary Waugh (Last Seen Wearing) and Meg O’Brien; and of course composer Isaac Hayes, made famous by his memorable Shaft movie theme.

They will be missed, one and all.

Ripe for the Pickings

With the end of 2008 now rapidly approaching, bloggers and various publications are rushing forth with rundowns of their favorite crime novels from the last 12 months. January Magazine critics recently had their say (see here and here). Other “best of” lists come from Sons of Spade, Vince Keenan, The Hungry Detective, Gravetapping, International Noir Fiction, Bryon Quertermous, Barbara Fister, Dave White, Josephine Damian, and Juri Nummelin.

Somehow, I forgot to mention Marilyn Stasio’s crime-fiction list from The New York Times, and Adam Woog’s choices for The Seattle Times. Meanwhile, Kerrie Smith of Mysteries in Paradise is asking readers to submit their top-reads choices to her blog; the quite diverse results can be found here. The Chicago Sun-Times doesn’t restrict itself to crime fiction, but its list does include some selections from the genre. And finally, critic David J. Montgomery has been busily polling authors for lists of their three favorite books from 2008. Respondents include Steve Berry, Tasha Alexander, Robert Crais, S.J. Rozan, Otto Penzler, and George Pelecanos. You can find all their choices here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Killer Reads

Well, it’s taken a while to get everything together, but January Magazine’s “best books of 2008” are finally rolling out for public consumption. Today’s offerings include a mammoth, two-part selection of more than three dozen top-quality works of crime and mystery fiction published in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain during the last 12 months. The first half can be found here, with the second installment to be posted later in the day. Among this year’s crime-fiction winners:

The Age of Dreaming, by Nina Revoyr
The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard
Chasing Darkness, by Robert Crais
Dancing for the Hangman, by Martin Edwards
The Dawn Patrol, by Don Winslow
Empty Ever After, by Reed Farrel Coleman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics, edited by Paul Gravett
Pavel & I, by Daniel Vyleta
A Quiet Flame, by Philip Kerr
Salvation Boulevard, by Larry Beinhart
The Snake Stone, by Jason Goodwin
Swan Peak, by James Lee Burke
Toros & Torsos, by Craig McDonald

After you’ve had a chance to read through all of the choices, let us know if you think any gems have been overlooked.

UPDATE: The second half of January’s crime-fiction-related “best of 2008” list can now be found here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Overseer,” by Jonathan Rabb

(Editor’s note: This is the 37th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Simon Wood, a British-born engineer and Anthony Award-winning novelist, who now lives in California. The author most recently of the thriller We All Fall Down, Wood wrote several weeks ago about another unjustly forgotten book, A Clubbable Woman, by the great Reginald Hill.)

It’s not uncommon to see books that explore similar ground enjoy widely differing success. One book becomes a phenomenon, while the other flies below the reading public’s radar. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is a work that succeeded, whereas Jonathan Rabb’s The Overseer didn’t quite make it.

It’s a shame really, because Rabb’s book is a first-class thriller that deserved more success. Rabb, a former academic at Columbia University, uses his political science and history background to come up with a yarn that plays with history and mythical documents. The premise behind the book is, what if there was another document like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War or Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince? But it goes way beyond anything than Sun Tzu and Machiavelli ever thought of. It’s an actual playbook for controlling the world. It exists in the guise of On Supremacy, a thesis penned by a 16th-century Swiss monk, Eisenreich. Eisenreich, all too aware the enormity of his ideas, dies before he’ll hand over the document. The document is forgotten, although theories that great historical figures throughout time might have possessed it--Henry VIII and Adolf Hitler among them--lend weight to the belief that it exists.

Fast-forward now to the present, and the mystical document is in the hands of a conservative cabal consisting of a TV pundit, a financier, and a radical educator. They have a version of On Supremacy and they’re putting its theories of world domination into practice. The plan would have gone unnoticed by the security agencies if it hadn’t been for the murder of a teenage girl in Montana. Her dying word--“Eisenreich”--means nothing to anyone in the U.S. State Department, but it does to Xander Jaspers, a brilliant young academic who has an understanding of Eisenreich’s theories. He’s teamed up with a deep-cover agent, Sarah Trent, to track down On Supremacy and thwart any plans to topple the democratic world.

What is so cool about The Overseer is that it’s that perfect mix of reality and fantasy. We know some well-financed cults exist. We know abuses of powers happen more regularly than they should. And we are hooked by the idea that there is a Holy Grail-type document that could destabilize the world. This is Santa Claus stuff for adults. How fun is that?

At its heart, The Overseer is a romp. It’s not a classic for the ages, but it’s a wonderful piece of “what if” storytelling. It has a great concept filled with familiar characters. Sarah Trent is a weary and damaged agent looking for redemption, Xander Jaspers is an innocent who needs breaking out of his bookish world to put the death of a young wife behind him, and Rabb’s bad guys are people we can identify with in the real world. There’s no ambiguity here. We know who to root for so we can enjoy the thrill ride.

But what makes this a more poignant novel than it was when it was first published in 1999 are the news events that have happened since then. Almost a decade ago, The Overseer came off as a real flight of fancy. Who would have believed that a major terrorist attack could occur in Washington, D.C., a financial collapse could be triggered by over-inflation of the markets, and a commodities shortage could lead to spiraling costs? But these are the truths of a post -9/11 world. It makes you believe in conspiracies and wonder if such a thing as Eisenreich’s On Supremacy exists ... and who is in possession of it.

The British Invasion Begins

It was on this date in 1963 that one of the Beatles’ best-loved songs, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was released. As Wikipedia explains:
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a song by the English pop and rock band The Beatles. Written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and recorded in October 1963, it was the first Beatles record to be made using four-track equipment. McCartney and Lennon did not have any particular inspiration for the song. Instead, they had received specific instructions from manager Brian Epstein to write a song with the American market in mind.

“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the band’s first number-one hit on the
Billboard Hot 100 chart, starting the British Invasion of the United States music charts. The song entered the chart on January 18, 1964, at number 45 before it became the number one single for 7 weeks and went onto last a total of 15 weeks in the chart. It also held the top spot in the United Kingdom charts. A million copies of the single had already been ordered on its release. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” became The Beatles’ best-selling single worldwide.
Hit it, boys ...

(Hat tip to Elizabeth Foxwell.)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Exit Sex Kitten, Stage Left

This is both sad and ironic news for Christmas Day: Singer and actress Eartha Kitt, whose renditions of the song “Santa Baby” were likely heard millions of times today, has died of colon cancer. She was 81 years old.

As The New York Times recalls:
Ms. Kitt, who began performing as a dancer in New York in the late ’40s, went on to achieve success and acclaim in a variety of mediums long before other entertainment multitaskers like Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler. With her curvaceous frame and unabashed vocal come-ons, she was also, along with Lena Horne, among the first widely known African-American sex symbols. Orson Welles famously proclaimed her “the most exciting woman alive” in the early ’50s, apparently just after that excitement prompted him to bite her onstage during a performance of “Time Runs,” an adaptation of “Faust” in which Ms. Kitt played Helen of Troy.

Ms. Kitt’s career-long persona, that of the seen-it-all sybarite, was set when she performed in Paris cabarets in her early 20s, singing songs that became her signatures like “C’est Si Bon” and “Love for Sale.” Returning to New York, she was cast on Broadway in “New Faces of 1952” and added another jewel to her vocal crown, “Monotonous” (“Traffic has been known to stop for me/Prices even rise and drop for me/Harry S. Truman plays bop for me/Monotonous, monotone-ous”). Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times in May 1952, “Eartha Kitt not only looks incendiary, but she can make a song burst into flame.”
Among Kitt’s performance credits are roles in Burke’s Law, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and Miami Vice. However, I probably remember her best as one of two women (Julie Newmar being the other) who played Catwoman on the 1960s series Batman. A purr-fect part for the sultry Kitt, whose last name suggested feline affinities.

Since it’s so incredibly apropos for this holiday, here’s Eartha Kitt’s rendition of “Santa Baby.” How could the fat man in the red suit have resisted her charms?

(Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

READ MORE:Eartha Kitt: ‘I’m a Liberal Artist,’” by Jaime J. Weinman (Something Old, Nothing New); “Eartha: A True Story,” by Harry Knapp (Open Salon).

Merry Christmas from The Rap Sheet

What with Seattle being socked in by snow, today has turned out to be a much quieter day than normal at Rap Sheet headquarters. Trips to visit family were postponed, we didn’t go to see concerts of Christmas caroling or really do much of anything outside. Still, the quiet has been a salutary thing after so much work over the last year, and so much excitement in the run-up to this holiday. Since we forgot to mail you a card this year (again!), we’re sending out our most heartfelt holiday wishes via the medium of this post.

Thanks again for your interest in The Rap Sheet. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading it at least a fraction as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it over the last 12 months.

Hot, Dark, and Available

Last week, we featured Michael Gregorio’s post about the book of Italian crime stories, Nero Perugino. Today, he sends us this note pass along to Rap Sheet readers:
Michael Gregorio would like to remind anyone in the entire world who reads Italian that there are still a few copies of Nero Perugino available at no charge. The anthology contains original stories by Massimo Carlotto, Grazia Verasani, Giampiero Rigosi, and Michael Gregorio. All you have to do is write to, asking for a copy. Have a thriller of a Christmas!
Copies will be posted after the holiday excitement has died down.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

“Beautiful Girls, Driven by a Lust for Blood”

I came across this trailer in the Permission to Kill blog, and just couldn’t help sharing. During the 1960s, at the height of James Bond’s initial film popularity, moviemakers were shameless in their efforts to create comparable fictional spies. One of those, apparently, was secret agent Alex Dynamo (his last name alone tells you how cheesy his adventures were). Played by Julio Alemán, Dynamo was the subject of at least two Latin American films. The first one was called SOS Conspiracion Bikini (1967), with the sequel being Peligro ...! Mujeres en acción (1969)--or, as it was known in an English-dubbed version, Danger Girls. I fear that not even the bikinis would make this whole movie watchable. But I could be wrong.

“Thrilling! Of endless action! Blood-chilling reality! Hair-raising suspense! Danger Girls!”

And Still They Come ...

As I’ve noted before (here and here), 2008 hasn’t even bitten the dust yet, but hot titles for 2009 already cover my bedside table--and just about every other surface around me. Who can keep up with a flood such as this?

Here are this week’s arrivals of note:

Shadow and Light, by Jonathan Rabb. Was I sleeping when Rabb’s Rosa--a 2005 thriller about Rosa Luxemburg--came out to fine reviews, including one from the much-missed John Leonard? (Rosa was also chosen as one of January Magazine’s favorite books of 2005.) I guess so. Anyway, I've just ordered a copy of Rabb’s sequel, Shadow and Light, with my own money (alert the media ...). Imagine a Bernie Gunther-type German policeman, Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner, investigating a suicide (ho ho ho) at the Ufa film studios in 1927, aided by director Fritz Lang and a fascinating little crime boss called Alby Pimm. Hoffner watches as his beloved Berlin falls apart, bloated with corruption and Nazis dressed in brown--like demented UPS drivers. Look for Shadow and Light in March.

Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø. Once again, I must have been absent when Nesbø, Norway’s ace noir writer, economist, musician, and all around great guy, invented my favorite private detective name--Harry Hole. In The Redbreast (2006), a disgraced and often drunk Harry got involved in crimes old and new in Oslo, including one that involved some neo-Nazis with a frightening link to World War II. Its sequel, Nemesis, is another great Harry Hole adventure. Grainy footage shows a man walking into a bank in Oslo and putting a gun to a cashier’s head. He tells her to count to 25. When he doesn’t get his money in time, he kills her. Hole is assigned to the case. While Harry’s girlfriend is away in Russia, an old flame gets in touch. He goes to dinner at her house ... and later wakes up at home with no memory of what happened during the past 12 hours. That same morning, the girl is found shot dead in her bed. Nemesis goes on sale in early January.

Also just arrived, but as yet uncracked: The Secret Speech, Tom Rob Smith’s follow-up to Child 44. Due out in May. Watch this space.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 28

Wouldn’t you know it, that I’d pick the shortest day of the year on which to compose my second entry in Barbara Fister’s fine Carnival of the Criminal Minds series? It’s been like this for me during the entirety of 2008--too much to do, too little time in which to complete everything. I look forward to a slightly more settled 2009, hoping that isn’t merely wishful thinking on my part. But meanwhile, the Carnival has moved on from Fister’s excellent Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog to encamp on this page, with its voluminous tents, everything-on-a-stick repasts, and giant pooper-scooper for the pachyderm leavings. It’s been a while since my first stab at hosting this Carnival, back in October of last year. But with my traditional mascot, smiling Tillie, firmly in my thoughts, I shall endeavor to justify being given this second chance at rounding up the best of the crime-fiction-oriented Web. Come one, come all, folks. The show’s about to begin.

• Thriller writer Eric Ambler seems to have been much on the minds of Rap Sheet contributors lately. Two entries in our “forgotten books” series have championed Ambler works: A Coffin for Dimitrios (1939) and Journey Into Fear (1940). So I couldn’t help but notice an entry in Karen Meek’s Euro Crime blog about plans to reprint some of Ambler’s best-known novels. Quoting from BookBrunch:
Simon Winder, Publishing Director at Penguin Press, has bought five “remarkable and prescient” Eric Ambler thrillers, to be republished as Penguin Modern Classics in May 2009 for Ambler’s centenary. The titles are Journey Into Fear, introduction by Norman Stone, Epitaph for a Spy, introduction by James Fenton, The Mask of Dimitrios, introduction by Mark Mazower, Cause for Alarm, introduction by John Preston, and Uncommon Danger, which is introduced by Thomas Jones.
• Speaking of Meek, she’s compiling a series about Christmas crime novels--just the thing to keep you warm (and on the edge of your seat) during this chilly season.

• Which isn’t to say that we must always read with a sense of seasonal appropriateness in mind--though we often do just that, explains The Guardian’s Molly Flatt.

• If you are, indeed, of a mind to read mysteries based around this festive season of the year, Mystery Readers Journal editor Janet Rudolph has compiled her own, quite extensive rundowns of Christmas mysteries and Chanukah mysteries.

• Who knew that the late pinup girl, Bettie Page, had anything in common with Ellery Queen? Independent Crime’s Nathan Cain did.

• Now, this is a book cover that just screams out “Buy me!”

• Bookgasm finds much to praise in the fifth and latest issue of Out of the Gutter. “If nothing else ...,” writes critic Rod Lott, “it holds true to its ‘degenerate literature’ label, offering story after story that dares to go even further than you thought anyone today had the balls to do. What other magazine prints fiction with titles like ‘Just Look at What the Bitch Made You Do’?” You can read the whole review here.

• Since when did “cozies” become “senior sleuth novels”? I don’t remember receiving that memo. In any event, author Jean Henry Mead contends at the Rule of Three site that the market for novels that are “less violent, devoid of graphic sex and [in which] the language usually lacks the F-word” is growing as Baby Boomers go gray. Not surprisingly, her own first novel features an elderly sleuth.

• In creating his famous literary creation, James Bond, was author Ian Fleming inspired by the real-life story of a Serbian-born, World War II double agent by the name of Dusko Popov? The blog Permission to Kill suggests that the answer is “yes.”

• Double O Section, a blog specializing in espionage fiction, has posted a handy guide for the spy story fans on your gift list. The most unexpected suggestion: “Varese Sarabande’s recent single-disc release of Dave Grusin music from The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.

• Author and former Rap Sheet guest blogger Jeri Westerson (Veil of Lies) has posted her own holiday gift list--this time containing only books--in her distinctive Weblog, Getting Medieval.

• After some trials and errors and short-timers, the British e-zine Shots has finally tapped Nick Stone--whose latest novel, The King of Swords, is brand-new in the States--as its latest film critic.

• While we’re on the subject of movies, Bish’s Beat, written by Los Angeles cop and novelist Paul Bishop, reminds me that the San Francisco Film Noir Festival will return to the historic Castro Theatre on January 23. “The theme of this year’s festival is Newspaper Noir, with many of the films set in the world of newspapers, or, in some cases, publishing or radio,” according to Bishop. The festival schedule runs through February 1. Tickets can be purchased here. Sigh. If only I loved in San Francisco ...

• From movies to DVD news: The complete collection of Robbie Coltrane’s dark crime series, Cracker, is due out from Acorn Media on March 10. Meanwhile, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear blogger Ivan G. Shreve Jr. has word that “Paramount/CBS DVD is apparently committed to releasing the remaining seasons (four, five and six) of Have Gun--Will Travel on DVD to fans ... they’re just not certain about when they’ll get around to doing it.” And if anybody’s stuck on what to jam into my Christmas stocking this year, this certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea.

• John’s Grill, located on Ellis Street off Union Square in San Francisco, and famously mentioned in The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (who “worked next door in the Flood Building in the 1920s”), is celebrating its 100th year in business this month. As the San Francisco Chronicle recalls,
John’s Grill has weathered at least four owners, the death of its namesake--the story is that he was struck and killed by a cable car in 1908--a 1983 fire that closed the restaurant for about nine months, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Throughout, it has remained at the same site, unlike some of the city’s oldest restaurants. And it’s just coincidence that John Konstin--the current owner after his father, Gus, bought John’s Grill more than 30 years ago--happens to be named John.
Anyone passing by John’s Grill, be sure to give it a big thumbs-up from The Rap Sheet.

Reports The New York Times: “Julius Fast, who won the first Edgar Award given by the Mystery Writers of America and went on to publish popular books on body language, the Beatles and human relationships, died on Tuesday in Kingston, N.Y. He was 89.”

Beat to a Pulp, the fiction Web site that debuted last week, is up with a second tough tale, “Hard Bite,” this one coming from an author who signs herself “Anonymous-9.”

• I often find the most unusual bits of crime-fiction history at The Bunburyist, written by Elizabeth Foxwell, managing editor of Clues: A Journal of Detection, touted as “the only U.S. scholarly journal on mystery/detective fiction.” Last week, for instance, brought this fascinating tidbit:
Her image as the scheming Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon is indelibly burned into our consciousness, but the Neglected Books blog discusses in fascinating detail Astor’s The Incredible Charlie Carewe (1960), which features a Ted Bundyesque prototype, and some of her other novels.
Click here to read the full post about Astor, author.

• I’m already missing William Shatner’s goofy antics on Boston Legal, the David E. Kelly series that earlier this month ended its four-year run on ABC-TV. What I hadn’t known until this week, though, was that Shatner appeared in a previous legal drama in 1965, called For the People. (I bet he didn’t do any sleepovers on that one, though.) This information comes from Marty McKee, a copywriter and critic who writes a thoroughly entertaining blog called Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot ... which is also where I was reminded of another offbeat legal series, called Rosetti and Ryan, starring Tony Roberts and Squire Fridell. Drat! Yet one more show to wait for in DVD release.

• Congratulations are due author and Rap Sheet poster Declan Burke, who writes that he’s working on a new book project:
The idea is for a book of essays, interviews and conversations about various aspects of Irish crime fiction, each chapter being written by an Irish crime writer. The names already confirmed include--although this may be subject to change--Colin Bateman, Gerard Brennan, Ken Bruen, Paul Charles, John Connolly, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Reed Farrel Coleman, Alan Glynn, Declan Hughes, Arlene Hunt, Gene Kerrigan, Brian McGilloway, Adrian McKinty and Neville Thompson. Messers, sorry, Messrs McKinty and Brennan are also on board as editors. Some of the writers’ chapters have yet to be confirmed, but the proposed material that has been is, in my entirely biased opinion, seriously interesting stuff.

Anyway, the good news is that the project has been given the green light by the Arts Council with regard to commissioning funding, which means that we can afford to pay the writers a token gesture, at least. That means we’re over the second hurdle, and there’s only about 198 left to clear.
To read more about this, click here.

• Have you heard about the graveside memorial service next month for Philadelphia noir writer David Goodis? Author Duane Swierczynski has the scoop in his Secret Dead Blog.

The Nation features a wonderful retrospective on the novels of Derek Raymond, most familiar for his Factory series of (more or less) police procedurals.

From Mike Stotter’s Shotsmag Confidential blog: “Craig Russell, author of the Jan Fabel detective series for Hutchinson, has joined Quercus for a concurrent series set in Glasgow in the 1950s. The series will star Lennox, a private detective whose clients are not always on the right side of the law. Jane Wood and Ron Beard bought UK and Canadian rights in three novels, starting with Lennox in 2009, through Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. Wood said: ‘At Quercus we’re all fans of the Fabel novels and we couldn’t be happier that Craig Russell has joined us. The Lennox books are very different in tone and confirm Craig’s amazing range and skill as a crime writer.’”

• Dennis Lehane (A Given Day) has been signed to edit a new short-story anthology, Boston Noir, for Akashic Books. That’s quite a coup on Akashic’s part.

According to The Writer’s Almanac, “On this day in 1913, the world’s first crossword puzzle appeared in a special Christmas issue of the New York World.”

• If you think I’m writing this item primarily so I can illustrate it with the naked Jennifer Aniston cover of GQ ... well, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. However, there is a quote in that same January 2009 issue of the magazine from author Stephen King that I thought worth repeating. Asked how he stays so productive, King explains:
I go to the same place to write almost every day. I don’t bring a cell phone. I don’t take an iPod. My mind is thrown on its own resources. I make a little deal with myself. I say, just get five pages out. Five pages, and that’s it. You’re done. Of course I’ll get to give pages and always want to write a little bit more, but without that quota, I’d have a hard time even starting. It used to be that I would work on something new in the daytime and then I would rewrite and work on something new at night, but those were the days when I drank a lot. There was a lot of liquid energy and Bolivian marching powder.
• Tim Maleeny, author of the new novel Greasing the Piñata, talks with blogger Julia Buckley about Mannix, sleuth protagonist Cape Weathers, and his move into standalone crime fiction. The results can be found here.

• If you can be thankful of nothing else this year, at least be glad that yours is not among the best mugshots of 2008.

• And what the hell is Rosemary Harris talking about, when she states that nobody drinks eggnog at Christmastime anymore? I’m sucking one down even as I write this!

That’s all for now, folks. The Carnival of the Criminal Minds is moving to the southern hemisphere in a couple of weeks, where it will be hosted at Australian Kerrie Smith’s Mysteries in Paradise blog. We trust that all the elephants and tigers will make the trip safely.

007 Is Everywhere

It doesn’t matter whether you sat through the latest James Bond blockbuster, Quantum of Solace, and hated it, or saw it and loved it. In either case, you’re probably a Bond fan. So you will likely be interested to know that Spike TV is planning to host a Bond movie marathon all this week. reports:
Scheduled from Monday, 22 December through Thursday, 25 December, the marathon will feature films from the Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan 007 eras.

Additionally, the USA Network will air Brosnan’s first three Bond films back to back on the 22nd and Showtime will host Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale on Christmas Day.
A full schedule of broadcasts can be found here.

(Hat tip to Bish’s Beat.)

Welcoming a “Dragon” Into the House

Following up on my recent talk with Erland Larsson, father of the late Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and in anticipation of next month’s release in Britain of that Swedish author’s second novel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, I had the opportunity to sit down briefly with Christopher MacLehose. He’s a legendary, “patrician” publisher in UK circles and now heads up Quercus Publishing’s MacLehose Press imprint, which holds the rights to Larsson’s award-winning “Millennium Trilogy.” I wanted to know from him how Larsson’s work came to be translated into English and fall into his appreciative hands.

Ali Karim: Christopher, how did you discover Stieg Larsson’s work?

Christopher MacLehose: The English translation of all three volumes of the Millennium Trilogy came from Norstedts, the Swedish publisher, via a very experienced American translator, who was asked [by Norstedts] to translate all three books for a film company, which he did in the remarkable time of 11 months.

AK: All three volumes?

CM: Yes, … an astonishing achievement. But it needed a certain amount of editorial work, inevitably. And as [the translator] was now involved in another project, he didn’t have time to do this. It should be said that [the trilogy] came to me many months after the translator had finished it. Why? Because it went to five, six, seven British publishing houses, and then five, six, seven American publishing houses--and they all said “no.” Why? Because it needed great deal of editorial work, but also because there was this feeling of “What can you do commercially with a writer who has died; what can you do?” … This I felt was ludicrous. I will bet with you that 80 percent of those who received the original translated manuscript, and said no, didn’t read it, because the author was dead. The translator himself sent it out to American publishers but faced the reaction, “Come on, what can we do with this? We haven’t got an author!” Well, it is a tragedy in one sense, that Stieg Larrson did not see his work published in English nor see [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] reach number No. 4 in The New York Times bestseller lists. This is an astonishing achievement for a translated novel. Incidentally, Knopf, who published it in the U.S., did so brilliantly, and as you know it reached No.1 in Catalonia, and so forth, and all over Europe. I’m frankly only grateful it came to us in the form that it did, needing a certain degree of editorial work; otherwise, it would have been bought by somebody else.

AK: So tell us what, in your opinion, makes these books “unique”?

CM: Lisbeth Salander, no question. Because [her partner] Mikhael Blomkvist--well, I am very interested in what the film company makes of the material. Will they retain Salander as the main lead, or will they enhance Blomkvist and make them at the same level? My feeling is that people in all translations respond to the utter originality of Lisbeth Salander. No one’s seen anything quite like her. There was a time when people said James Bond was utterly original.

AK: That’s an excellent comparison.

CM: If the filmmakers get it right, Salander will leave James Bond in her wake. Salander is just so interesting and she’s much more intellectually stimulating than James Bond ever was. She is a woman of so many facets, aspects, the physical, the emotional, the history of her mental illness, where she stands in Swedish society, and her computer skills, her professional skills as an analyst. She is not a complete human being, because of her emotional wreckage. She’s utterly fascinating.

AK: The Girl with Dragon Tattoo was the first book to come from your MacLehose Press imprint. So tell us, how are you finding working with Quercus?

CM: Nothing will quite compare with my years at Harvill [Press], as that was an imprint that was devoted to translation of pure literature, but we did publish [Danish author] Peter Høeg, Henning Mankell, Fred Vargas, and many others who are also considered as European crime writers. … [T]here is no one quite like [the Quercus team]. They are young, work flat-out all day, all night. I’ll tell you what it’s like: When I left the old Chatto and Windus and went to Collins, who were then a tremendously vigorous young publishing house, I described it like free-falling downwards without a parachute. Working with Quercus is like getting out of the airplane and suddenly you are moving fast, very fast indeed, and there is no parachute.

AK: What other crime-fiction delights might you recommend from MacLehose Press’ catalogue?

CM: Crime fiction, hmm. I would indicate Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski, the Polish crime writer who I consider to be one of the world’s most original crime writers. There are five books I hope publish by him.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Capturing the Art of Darkness

Left to right: Michael Jacob, Grazia Verasani, Giampiero Rigosi, Marina Dal Bon (organizer), Giovanna Zucconi, Daniela De Gregorio, and the brain behind the event, Andrea Cernicchi. (Massimo Carlotto arrived late!)

Nero Perugino is the world’s finest chocolate, at least according to residents of Perugia, Italy. But that Nestlè brand name took on a dark new flavor when Nero Perugino (Futura), a collection of four commissioned short stories, was published recently. The authors whose work was included--Massimo Carlotto, Giampiero Rigosi, Grazia Verasani, and your humble correspondents, writing as “Michael Gregorio”--appeared on stage in Perugia to talk about our contributions on December 12 at the Teatro Pavone.

To everyone’s surprise, an audience of about 450 people turned up. Then again, given the theme of this anthology, the size of the audience should have surprised no one. The crime writers had been invited to contribute a short story focusing on the “dark side” of this bustling city. The idea was the brainchild of Andrea Cernicchi, the counselor for culture in Perugia. Any customer who buys a book in one of the city’s bookshops in the run-up to Christmas, he declared, will receive a free copy of Nero Perugino at the city’s expense. And counselor Cernicchi has 15,000 copies to give away.

Giovanna Zucconi, a well-known Italian journalist, was in the moderator’s chair, and she set the tone for the evening by referring immediately to the tragic event which splashed the name of Perugia on the front pages of the world’s newspaper just over a year ago: the murder of Meredith Kercher, an English girl who had been studying in Perugia. The trial of Amanda Knox, Raffaele Sollecito, and Rudi Guede, who are accused of killing Kercher, has become a national and international obsession. The streets of once-tranquil, provincial Perugia have been overrun with journalists and cameramen desperately looking for new angles, and the name of the city has become synonymous with drugs, sex, and violence.

The reaction of city fathers was to play the story down and wait for the storm to blow over. With one exception--Andrea Cernicchi.

Cernicchi reckoned that the city had to face up to the fact that a foreign student had been murdered here, and that other students in cosmopolitan Perugia--an African, an American, and an Italian--had reportedly been involved in her slaying. The city’s two universities host about 20,000 students a year, and a great number of them are foreigners. It was risky, the counselor said, to leave the city’s image in the hands of bored foreign journalists who were digging up all sorts of dirt while waiting for the trial to get under way, then run its course. If Perugia really did have a problem, the best way to deal with it was to bring it out into the open, invite the inhabitants to think about the situation, then talk it through. After some hard thinking with his team of advisers, he came up with Nero Perugino, four abbreviated tales to be set in Perugia and written by professional crime writers. As Daniela De Gregorio (half of the writing team of “Michael Gregorio”) put it: “We were invited to try and exorcise evil from the city.”

The authors were asked to spend a couple of days in the city, explore it freely, then produce a short story that had been inspired by their visit. The results are eloquent proof of the rich variety of the human imagination. Each writer came to Perugia, saw what he or she wanted, or managed, to see of the city, and then wrote whatever came most naturally.

Massimo Carlotto, one of the great names in modern Italian crime writing, produced “Cortonese Station,” a characteristically sardonic tale of a Russian hit man who comes to Perugia to do a job, gets caught up in the journalistic hullabaloo, and reluctantly sees the error of his ways. As Carlotto said to wild public applause: “I came expecting the worst, and I found Perugia to be a very nice place. Despite what the papers say, nothing has changed. The young are as vibrant as ever.”

My wife and I decided that our early 19th-century Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis (Days of Atonement) should visit Perugia during his 1792 grand tour. In our story “Die Wanderung,” Hanno falls in love with the artistic masterpieces and the brilliant Italian sunlight. Predictably, he goes off wandering at night, and gets himself into trouble. “As young people tend to do,” I remarked to the audience. “As I certainly did when I was a student.” In our story, wine and the Sublime are a more than adequate substitute for beer and marijuana.

Giampiero Rigosi took a more direct approach, rewriting the murder of Meredith Kercher in a startling way. The central character in his tale, “La Notte di Halloween” (the Kercher murder occurred on the night of November 1, 2007), is a costumed Templar who sets out to save the intended victim by slaughtering the three aggressors in his own spectacular manner.

“Murder is always polyglot,” Grazia Verasani wrote in oblique reference to the nationalities of the students involved in Meredith Kercher’s murder. “My effort is not a story, it’s just a chronicle of my stay,” she told the theater audience, explaining the genesis of her contribution. She offers the reader an edited version of her notes as she visited Perugia for the first time in her life, noticing all the things which make the city so memorable--fine art, fine food, and magnificent buildings, plus a rich mingling of cultures and breathtaking views of the nearby mountains. And, most of all, the wind--the so-called tramontana, which blows down from the mountains through the historic streets of Perugia. “Is the gale that shrieks down from Porta Sole the only menacing thing about this city?” she asks.

Afterward, as we chatted with members of the audience in the cathedral square and signed copies of Nero Perugino, the general consensus was that the wind could be cold, very, very cold. “Murderously cold,” as someone remarked, appropriately.

Nero Perugino contains a preface by Giovanna Zucconi, and an introduction by Maurizio Pistelli, who teaches Contemporary Italian Literature in Perugia and is the author of Un secolo in giallo: Storia del poliziesco italiano (1861-1960), which translates as A Century of Crime Writing in Italy.

Although this anthology is not available commercially outside of Italy, we have obtained a dozen copies and would be happy to send one--free of charge--to anyone who e-mails their request here. Remember, though, that Nero Perugino is written in Italian.

Reads to Relish

Bookspot Central contributors, as well as a few guests--Brian Evenson, Victor Gischler, Steve Mosby, Russel D. McLean, Robert Ward, Allan Guthrie, and John McFetridge--list their “favorite reads of 2008.” The lists include, but are not limited to works actually published over the last 12 months, and they feature both crime fiction and books drawn from other categories.

The full load can be found here.

Meanwhile, Robin Agnew, the proprietor of Aunt Agatha’s Books in Ann Arbor, Michigan, submits her own top 10 list for the year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Farewell to a Dear Colleague

I was saddened to hear the news (from Quercus’ Lucy Ramsey) that Susanna Yager, an important British books critic with a deep interest in crime fiction, passed away earlier this week. I always enjoyed her company and her insight, but to be honest I did not know her that well. However, a favorite crime writer of mine, Natasha Cooper (aka Daphne Wright), knew her well. Cooper’s comments on Yager follow:
Susanna Yager, who died on 15 December 2008, was one of the greatest supporters of crime writing in the UK. She was the crime fiction critic of the Sunday Telegraph for a decade, producing reviews that were always fair and always very much her own. Neither fashion nor sales could sway her judgment, and her integrity was such that she would never accept a publisher’s hospitality unless she had already read and reviewed the book they were promoting. She read practically everything that was published in our genre and gave particular consideration to new writers.

In addition to her reviewing, she served as a judge of literary awards, offering her wide knowledge and critical expertise on the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger and the Ellis Peters Dagger over many years.

But Susanna Yager came late to crime fiction, having already achieved a highly distinguished career in publishing and television. She was the first woman main board director of a FTSE 100 company, working for both [publishers] Heinemann and Hutchinson. Leaving Hutchinson, she moved on to Channel 4 right at the beginning of its existence.

Outside her work, she was a knowledgeable and discriminating lover of designer clothes, fine wine and food, an excellent cook, and impressively fit. I shall never forget a lunch given by [publisher] Hodder one year, when Susanna, Paul Johnston, and John Connolly discussed the finer points of press-ups and shared their experience of gyms, equipment, and the development of proper muscle tone. Both men were at first surprised and then visibly impressed by Susanna’s contribution.

Generous, loyal, and funny, Susanna Yager will be greatly missed. And she will not be forgotten.
Our sympathies go out to Yager’s friends and family.

The Book You Have to Read: “A Coffin for Dimitrios,” by Eric Ambler

(Editor’s note: This is the 36th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Rap Sheet and January Magazine contributor Ali Karim.)

About a month and a half ago, British thriller writer Charles Cumming wrote on this page about Eric Ambler’s magnificent 1940 novel, Journey Into Fear. I have been a follower of espionage fiction for a number of years, and of course Ambler’s work resonates prominently in my mind. But one of his classic novels has taken on more meaning for me lately, what with the daily drumbeat of sour economic news: A Coffin for Dimitrios (also known as The Mask of Dimitrios). It’s been 69 years since that book first reached stores; yet very little has changed when it comes to human nature and our propensity for committing unreasoned and unreasonable acts.

More than a quarter-century has passed since I first enjoyed A Coffin for Dimitrios. However, as I picked up my battered old copy and sat with it under my reading lamp, I marveled once again at how Ambler blended such well-delineated characters within his corkscrew of a plot, its subtext shocking us with its insight. The first thing I realized was how fresh and relevant the story seems today, focusing as it does on the dark side of human nature and reminding us that problems in the Balkans have been part of our history for generations. The second thing I noticed was that this tale offers very little in the way of action (until the end, at least); instead, its appeal is rooted largely in Ambler’s portrayal of 1930s Europe as a volatile and dangerous place, with war clouds massing overhead and the electrical smell of ozone conspicuous. Finally, I understood why this novel has been so influential on both writers and filmmakers.

Let’s start out by considering Coffin’s plot, which at first appears simple and almost clichéd. We have Charles Latimer, a former academic turned detective novelist on holiday in pre-World War II Turkey. Latimer meets Colonel Haki, a Turkish police official (and fan of detective fiction), who wants the Englishman to write a novel in the future featuring a plot he has concocted. These sorts of suggestions are made to crime fictionists all the time, and Latimer’s initial response is to decline gracefully. But his curiosity is piqued when Haki starts telling him more about the discovery of the body of underworld enforcer and master criminal Dimitrios Makropolous, washed up on a beach.

Like the mythical Keyzer Soze (from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects), Dimitirios was an international gangster, murderer, trafficker in women, spy, and assassin-for-hire, who hid behind different names and identities, operating for a shadowy banking group (the Eurasian Credit Trust) and carrying out the dark deeds required by his paymasters. Compelled to learn more about the man who lies dead on Colonel Haki’s morgue slab, Latimer proceeds to trace back through Dimitrios’ life. The journey will change our hero as the trail he’s following snakes from the Middle East to Paris, and drags him through the criminal deeds that so defined Dimitrios in life. However, Latimer must also remain wary of his researches. Can he really trust the recollections of his late subject’s numerous enemies? And how will Latimer’s liberal value system be challenged when he unearths the truth and extent of the evil that took up residence in Dimitrios’ soul?

Dimitrios’ criminal record starts with the murder of Sholem, a moneylender and deunme (a Jew converted to Islam) whose throat was cut. While the slippery Dimitrios fled from that crime scene, his less-quick-witted accomplice, Dhris Mohammad, was caught and hanged by the authorities--thanks in part to Dimitrios’ plotting. Colonel Haki had described Dimitrios Makropolous as “a dirty type, common, cowardly scum.” Latimer, however, sees that Dimitrios was far more sophisticated, and perhaps a man of his times. “Bad business were the elements of the new theology,” Ambler writes at one point. “Dimitrios was not evil. He was logical and consistent; as logical and consistent in the European jungle as the poison gas called Lewisite and the shattered bodies of children killed in the bombardment of an open town.” So Latimer, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow (in Heart of Darkness), begins a journey to find out who and what Dimitrios was.

This is a classic theme, but in Ambler’s skilled hands it becomes something special, something memorable. He makes Dimitrios seem even more sinister by keeping him off-stage until the very end of Coffin, and instead using letters, criminal rap sheets, and the recollections of others to build up the character’s notoriety. I’m convinced that A Coffin for Dimitrios must have influenced Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man (1949), and it surely has had an impact on the fiction of more modern writers, including Robert Harris, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Alistair MacLean, and Alan Furst. As Alfred Hitchcock wrote in an introduction to a 1943 omnibus edition of Ambler’s novels: “[Ambler’s villains] are not only real people, they are actually the kind of people who have generated violence and evil in the Europe of our time.” And Dimitrios is just that--a psychopath to whom morality, conscience, and international borders mean nothing.

As Charles Latimer pursues information about his subject, he encounters the sinister and obese Dane, Peters (aka Petersen), a former partner of Dimitrios who was double-crossed and sent to prison. Peters is now looking for revenge, as he’s convinced that the master criminal faked his death.

There is a chilling interlude when Peters sends Latimer to meet the retired spymaster, Grodek, who is spending his retirement in Switzerland. Via a series of letters, we learn how Dimitrios and Grodek entrapped a low-level government clerk named Bulic and his wife, who had sought financial and social advancement. This sequence is made all the more chilling by Dimitrios’ matter-of-fact methods. Writes Ambler:
Bulic was kicked in the abdomen and then as he bent forward retching, in the face, gasping for breath and with pain and bleeding in the mouth, he was flung into a chair while Dimitrios explained coldly that the only risk he ran was in not doing what he was told.
The end of the journey for Latimer finds him agreeing to join Peters in another sting operation, this one meant to flush out Dimitrios from behind his mask. In a tense and anxiety-inducing climax, the British author and protagonist comes face to face with his quarry, only to realize that Dimitrios is actually the personification of the crises that Europe was facing in their era.

A pivotal novel in the thriller fiction genre, and a remarkable work of existentialist literature, A Coffin for Dimitrios blends politics, espionage, banking, and the underworld together to show how all of those factors are essential to the foundations of modern society. Unfortunately, society seems to require “enforcers” like Dimitrios Makropolous, who will take on the tasks that “civilized” men and women eschew. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, the darkness in our nature is always visible.

I wonder what Dimitrios and Latimer would have thought about today’s economic crisis.