Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Another Cause for Celebration

Today may or may not be the birthday of Doctor John H. Watson (it depends on which source you believe), but we’ll use almost any excuse for a party.

And Here Come the Spinetinglers

Spinetingler Magazine this morning announced its nominees for the 2010 Spinetingler Awards in nine categories:

Best Novel: New Voice (1-3 novels published)
Best Novel: Rising Star (4-8 novels published)
Best Novel: Legend (9+ novels published)
Best Short Story on the Web
Best Mystery or Crime Comic/Graphic Novel
Best Mystery/Crime Fiction Press, Publisher or Imprint
Special Services to the Industry & Community
Best Reviewer
Best Cover

Click here to vote for your favorite contenders. This poll will remain open until April 30, with winners to be announced on May 1.

I was among the winners of Spinetingler Awards last year, so I know how pleasing it can be to be recognized in this manner. Congratulations are due all of the nominees.

Eight Has Enough

After some delays, the eighth edition of Plots With Guns has finally been posted. Included among its contributors are Johnny Zephyr, Adrian Magson, and Scott Wolven.

The complete contents are here.

A Losing Hand?

Pulp International brings us the worrisome news today that the Cal-Neva Lodge & Casino--a resort that traces it history back to a 1926 vacation home on the Nevada/California border at Lake Tahoe, and was once owned by Frank Sinatra--is shuttering its gambling operations today.

“[T]he Cal-Neva’s fortunes have been in decline for decades due to the proliferation of nearby Indian casinos,” the Web site reports, “and the general dominance of Las Vegas. When the recent recession hit, the current owners--who had laid off about a hundred employees since 2006--finally decided they could not keep their gaming rooms in operation. Officially, at least, today’s closure is temporary, but industry insiders note that Rat Pack chic is not enough to draw modern gamblers to an older casino like the Cal-Neva Lodge. If so, it’s quite possible that not only will the gaming rooms never reopen, but that the entire Lodge has begun its final decline.”

I remember our parents taking my brother and me up to the Cal-Neva during our one and only vacation to Lake Tahoe, sometime in the early 1970s. It didn’t seem like such a classy joint to me at the time, but either my father or one of the hotel hands told us about the Sinatra years, and how the resort once attracted movie and music stars on the order of Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe (who apparently spent her last weekend at the Cal-Neva before committing suicide in Los Angeles in 1962). It’s sad to see a landmark at such risk of disappearing.

READ MORE:Cal-Neva Casino Closed: Rat Pack-era Casino Was Owned by Frank Sinatra,” by Martin Griffin (Associated Press).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Story Behind the Story:
“31 Bond Street,” by Ellen Horan

(Editor’s note: This week brings the release of 31 Bond Street [Harper], the first novel from New Yorker Ellen Horan, who’s worked as a freelance photo editor for books and magazines. 31 Bond Street fictionalizes a notorious murder case from pre-Civil War Manhattan, which, though heavily covered at the time and pitting two prominent attorneys--Henry L. Clinton and Abraham Oakey Hall--against one another, has since been generally forgotten. In the essay below, Horan recalls how she came to write this book and what she learned about New York and historical investigative procedures in the course of doing so.)

When editor Jeff Pierce invited me to guest blog in The Rap Sheet, I wanted to write about what motivated me to turn this 19th-century murder case into a novel. The story in 31 Bond Street is based on an actual crime. I first discovered this book idea from a newspaper clipping in a print shop. The etching on the page showed a group of people clustered in front of a townhouse on Bond Street, in New York City, where a murder had taken place. A prominent dentist, Dr. Harvey Burdell, had been found brutally slain on his office floor on a Saturday morning in February 1857. The reports said that all the doors had been locked at night, and no one in the household heard a thing. Emma Cunningham, a widow who cared for his house and lived with her two daughters in the top floors, became the prime suspect.

My first thought was that the article must be serialized fiction, which was common in newspapers at the time. But the style was true reportage, which further piqued my interest: here was a vanished and little-known homicide, committed just blocks from where I stood at that moment, staring at the aged clipping.

When I visited modern Bond Street, in lower Manhattan, I found that the elegant row of townhouses and the tree-lined street that Burdell knew had long ago disappeared, and the street was a jumble of warehouses, scrap metal vendors, and garages. The cobblestones were still there and a trace of the townhouse dormers was evident on the sides of a wall in an open lot. I was intrigued by this vanished area of my city, and also by the inhabitants of that historical city, who were mystified by a murder in their midst.

I went to the New York Public Library, with the idea of that intrigue--but also prepared to be disappointed. I am not a patient researcher, and since I was doing this on a hunch or a whim, I expected to quit at the first frustration. At that time, the newspapers were not yet digitized, but microfilm of all the 1857 New York dailies was contained in one cabinet, and I spooled easily through to the date of my clipping. There it was, day after day of front-page coverage of the crime. Going back to the first day that reporters started covering Burdell’s death allowed me to read about the investigation as city dwellers of the time might, with their morning paper over breakfast.

As I read, I became engaged by a number of things. There was the primary mystery: Who killed Dr. Burdell? There was also a questionable romantic involvement between the suspect and the victim. And there was the fascination of stepping back into time, to New York City in the mid-19th century, just before the Civil War engulfed the country. I began to assemble the material I found into narrative non-fiction, but then turned a corner and found myself drawn to the motivations of the characters, to what went on inside their heads, and what kinds of social and political pressures were looming at the edges of their lives. That is the stuff of fiction, and so I embarked on turning this true-life criminal episode into a novel. I incorporated a large amount of the original source material, but narrowed down the narrative threads to two main characters, one for Emma Cunningham, and another for her lawyer, Henry Clinton. Other players and voices emerged and the story took on a life of its own.

Dr. Harvey Burdell and his home at 31 Bond Street, as shown in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 21, 1857.

From the standpoint of criminal procedure, the most notable thing about the murder of Dr. Burdell (referred to in the popular press as the Bond Street Murder), was the coroner’s investigation, which began the morning of the corpse’s discovery. This procedure has since been abolished, but it existed in the United States for decades after the Burdell case and until the 20th century in England. The coroner, an elected official, was the lead investigator of a crime, and he had the power to seize a crime scene and place anyone he wished under house arrest. Witnesses and potential suspects were rounded up and remanded into police custody inside the house, with the overflow going to cells in the local precinct until the investigation was complete. The investigation included each “witness” testifying before a coroner’s jury.

In this instance, the investigation went on for 14 days, and ran amok. Press stenographers were allowed inside 31 Bond Street, to record the testimony. This was an interesting quirk: stenography had only recently been introduced to the United States, to be used for newspaper reporting. The New York Times offered its recording services (men with inkwells, writing shorthand) to the courts, which had not yet hired their own stenographers. Its transcriptions of testimony became the public record, and earned the Times its sobriquet, the “paper of record.” In return for this service, the Times enjoyed press access. In the case of the coroner’s investigation into Burdell’s murder, this proved to be an explosive exchange, for the newspapers were able to print the verbatim testimony of people being queried inside the house. The coroner, Edward Connery, seized his moment in the spotlight and his interrogation tactics were much maligned as being overly theatrical. The testimonies became a peek behind closed doors, into the upstairs-downstairs life of the Burdell household, with lurid insinuations about private lives. Most interesting to me, as a writer, was that in these transcripts, the spoken rhythm and dialogue of the actual characters remained intact. I could hear the voices of some of those people, as they described their lives and the events surrounding the murder.

The investigation included an autopsy, performed inside the house by a battery of doctors. This was a privilege of the wealthy (a morgue autopsy was commonplace for the poor). Microscopes were brought into the house to analyze blood evidence. Looking at blood corpuscles through a microscope eliminated a knife as the murder weapon, for it proved that the stains were from beef blood. It’s hard for us to imagine that these then-new technical advancements astonished the public.

(Left) Emma Cunninghams attorney, Henry Lauren Clinton, who proved himself adept--and lucky--in defending his client.

In those days, medical jurisprudence was a newly formed discipline that applied the knowledge of anatomy and medical science to criminal law. It had only recently been acknowledged that the succession of events could be analyzed by scientific measurements of the crime scene--that the splatters of blood, the depths of the wounds, and the sequence of wounds across the body could help tell a story, not just of the crime, but of the criminal or criminals behind it.

Henry Clinton was the attorney who took up Emma Cunningham’s defense. He became, in fact, an extremely prominent lawyer in criminal and civil practice. He tried many important cases after the Burdell slaying, including the prosecution of New York’s notorious Tweed Ring and the will contests of Cornelius Vanderbilt and A.T. Stewart. At the end of his life, in 1899, Clinton wrote two books: Celebrated Trials and Extraordinary Cases. His analysis of the Burdell murder case, although a dense and legal read, was for me a fascinating peek inside his defense strategies, and became a template for several scenes in 31 Bond Street.

In the factual Burdell murder case, there was no lead “investigator.” The era preceded the professional approach to crime that emerged after the Civil War, with the advent of sleuths and private eyes. By the 1870s, the private detective had become crime’s leading point of view--inspiring a whole new body of popular fiction.

READ MORE:31 Bond Street: New York’s First Sensation,” by Sheila McClear (New York Post); “Scenes from the Burdell Murder,”
by Robert Wilhelm (Murder by Gaslight).

Short Takes

• The Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas campus has decided to take down its re-creation of the California study once used by prolific mystery writer Erle Stanley Gardner, even though that exhibit has been a magnet for crime-fiction lovers over the last four decades. A photo of the study and an audio report on the Flawn Center’s regrettable move can be found here. (Hat tip to Bill Crider.)

• Speaking of Gardner, his 1950 novel The Case of the One-Eyed Witness is the subject of Les Blatt’s latest podcast review. You can listen to that critique here.

• Unbelievable! Britain’s long-running crime drama, The Bill, which debuted in October 1984, has finally been cancelled by ITV.

• Even Jane Austen’s characters can’t escape violence.

• Max Allan Collins writes today about the “(almost) lost Mike Hammer novels,” which were left behind at the time of Mickey Spillane’s death in 2006. One of those has already seen print (The Goliath Bone), a second (The Big Bang) is due out in May, and a third, Kiss Her Goodbye (which Collins says is “probably the best of the trio”), should come out “sometime next year.” But there are three more “yet-to-be-completed Hammer novels” after those.

• Not only have the right-wing Tea Party cultists practiced vandalism and demonstrated hatred, but now they want to abolish Social Security. Even former Bush staffers don’t like them.

• Get your Easter-themed mysteries here.

• The Spring 2010 issue of Mysterical-E has been posted.

• And here are two interviews worth checking out: Jedidiah Ayres talks with Victor Gischler, author of the soon-to-be-released novel, The Deputy; and Spinetingler Magazine features reviewer Jim Napier’s conversation with P.D. James.

Thrill of the Chase

The International Thriller Writers (ITW) organization has announced its nominees for the 2010 Thriller Awards as follows:

Best Hardcover Novel
Vanished, by Joseph Finder (St. Martin’s Press)
Long Lost, by Harlan Coben (Dutton)
Fear the Worst, by Linwood Barclay (Bantam)
The Neighbor, by Lisa Gardner (Bantam)
The Renegades, by T. Jefferson Parker (Dutton)

Best Paperback Original
Shadow Season, by Tom Piccirilli (Bantam)
Urge to Kill, by John Lutz (Pinnacle)
Vengeance Road, by Rick Mofina (Mira)
The Coldest Mile, by Tom Piccirilli (Bantam)
No Mercy, by John Gilstrap (Pinnacle)

Best First Novel
Fragment, by Warren Fahy (Delacorte Press)
Dead Men’s Dust, by Matt Hilton (Morrow)
Collision of Evil, by John J. Le Beau (Oceanview Publishing)
Dracula: The Un-Dead, by Dacre Stoker (Dutton)
Running from the Devil, by Jamie Freveletti (Morrow)

Best Short Story
“The Desert Here and Desert Far Away,” by Marcus Sakey
“A Stab in the Heart,” by Twist Phelan
“Back Up,” by Rick Mofina
“Iced,” by Harry Hunsicker
“Boldt’s Broken Angel,” by Ridley Pearson

Winners will be announced during ThrillerFest V, to be held in New York City from July 7 to 10.

Mysterious and Spooky, and Now Older

It’s time to break out the cake and candles for John Astin. The Baltimore-born actor and director turns 80 years old today.

Although probably still best remembered for his portrayal of Gomez Addams in the 1960s monster sitcom The Addams Family, Astin also played The Riddler during one season of Batman and enjoyed recurring roles on both Night Court and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. His professional résumé actually runs to Roman scroll length and includes guest appearances on The Wild Wild West, Bonanza, Night Gallery, Police Woman, Get Christie Love!, The Father Dowling Mysteries, Simon & Simon, Burke’s Law, and Murder, She Wrote. Astin directed episodes of CHiPs and McMillan & Wife (on the latter of which he also played Sykes, who, if I recall correctly, was a police forensics specialist). He continues to act; he’s slated to appear in the 2010 science-fiction/comedy film Starship II: Rendezvous with Ramses. And Astin has earned plaudits for his in-character recitals of Edgar Allan Poe works.

Once married to child star Patty Duke, he currently teaches acting and directing at his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Astin is a “practicing Buddhist” ... though why he’s been practicing for so long without getting it right is anybody’s guess.

Hey, it’s a joke. Given Astin’s work history, it seemed appropriate.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Battle of the Stars

As promised, blogger Jen Forbus has posted Round Four of her “World’s Favorite Detective” tournament. What began earlier this month as a competition between 64 well-respected fictional sleuths has now boiled down to a fight between just eight, half of them classic protagonists, the others more modern figures. With match-ups like these, how does a crime-fiction fan ever choose?

Harry Bosch vs. Sam Spade
Sherlock Holmes vs. Lincoln Rhyme
Elvis Cole vs. Philip Marlowe
Hercule Poirot vs. Dave Robicheaux

This isn’t a great scientific study. One does not expect to learn much from the outcome of the contest. It’s simply entertaining. You can help narrow the field down to four by clicking here.

READ MORE:Who Is Your Favorite Female Detective?” by
Maxine Clarke (Petrona).

Sometimes You Get a Second Chance

If you haven’t already noticed, Spinetingler Magazine has been progressively evolving a new identity over the last month or so. The changes have all been part of a general facelift, which will conclude this week with an “official” relaunch.

“We made a decision to shift away from issue-based publications and towards a continuous publication format,” explains non-fiction editor Brian Lindenmuth in a news release. “At the same time, we wanted to split the mystery and crime fiction content off of the parent site, BSC Review, to give it room to breathe and bring it into greater relief.” He goes on to say that Spinetingler will expand its reportorial and critical range to cover crime fiction “in all of its forms,” from books and short stories to television, movies, comics, music, and more. In addition, Lindenmuth writes, “Spinetingler will be debuting two brand-new original short stories this week. For the next three months we will be featuring two brand-new original stories a month and then we will switch to one new story a month.”

To celebrate its relaunch, the Webzine will roll out a number of special features this week. Again from Lindenmuth’s news release:
On Monday Spinetingler will post an original story by Hilary Davidson and we will kick off our annual Conversations with the Bookless series, which is a continuation of last year’s BSC Review series. The Conversations series will run on weekdays for the next couple of weeks.

On Tuesday we will have a review of this weeks episode of Justified and an exclusive interview with P.D. James.

On Wednesday we will be debuting a new weekly column that focuses on crime songs and we will be announcing all of the nominees for the 2010 Spinetingler Awards. The voting polls will open also.

On Thursday we have an article on Asian crime fiction and an exclusive article by Adrian McKinty.

On Friday we will publish the second original short story and we will have an exclusive interview with Robert Crais. ...

On Saturday we will be running two articles. The first is titled “The Greater Bruen Mythos” and the second is titled “The Wire: The Feminine Equation.”

On Sunday, in addition to our weekly wrap-up, our weekly coverage of Breaking Bad will continue.
This sounds good, but also pretty damn challenging. Let’s hope that Lindenmuth, Sandra Ruttan, Jack Getze, and the rest of the Spinetingler crew can maintain the ambitious pace they’re setting.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Maxim Exposure

My wife and I were in London a couple of weeks ago for the paperback launch of our latest novel, A Visible Darkness, the fourth of our historical mysteries featuring Prussia magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis. While there, we took the opportunity to have lunch with British editor and former bookstore proprietor Maxim Jakubowski (shown at right) and his wife, Dolores. The Jakubowskis had been our guests in Italy for the Trevi Noir festival in November 2008, and it was very good to have an excuse to visit with them once more.

Maxim Jakubowski doesn’t really need an introduction. His name must be one of the most internationally renowned in the field of crime-fiction publishing. Born in England but reared in Paris, and now 65 years of age, he has edited fiction in a variety of genres, including mystery, science fiction, and erotica. He pens book reviews as well as novels of his own, serves as the literary director of London’s Crime Scene Film Festival, and is regularly seen answering questions about crime fiction on British TV screens. We introduced him in Trevi as “Mister Noir.” The fact that amazes everyone who meets Jakubowski is his capacity for work!

While in London, we talked with Jakubowski about his current publishing projects, the expectations for his new literary imprint, one of his humorous book-selling memories, and some of his recommendations of near-future films and crime novels.

Michael Gregorio: Maxim, you are a prolific “producer” of books in many different genres. You’ve written, compiled, edited, and anthologized in a number of fields, including crime, thriller, mystery, erotica, science fiction ... the list goes on and on!

Maxim Jakubowski: I’m not really a “producer,” just a writer and an editor. Because of Murder One, a lot of people forget that I spent two decades in publishing as an editor before I began selling books. Doing so many anthologies and projects is my way of keeping in touch. I enjoy discovering and promoting new and other writers in whatever category they fall.

MG: What are your publishing projects for this year?

MJ: Somewhat indecently, I have nine books out in 2010 (and five more under contract and at various stages for publication in 2011). I’ll do two annuals, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, which has now reached 15 volumes, and The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime/Mystery Stories, now in its eighth year. In addition, there are four Sex in the City collections of city-based erotica stories, strongly inspired by the Akashic Noir series, covering London, Paris, New York, and Dublin. Crime writers in these anthologies include Ken Bruen, Stella Duffy, Colin Bateman, Gerard Brennan, and many others. My third Mammoth Book of Erotic Photography has just been delivered. So has Following the Detectives, a literary travel book of sorts, with a chapter by Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce.

Last but not least, there’s my first novel in four years.

Too many books, I know. Next year will appear quieter as two of those already signed for will be pseudonymous! I reckon I’m somewhere over 125 books so far, but I’ve never bothered to count. (There have been some pen names, which I’m not eager to reveal, mostly in non-fiction areas, and long ago in science-fiction books; crime and erotica are always under my name ...)

MG: And yet you found the time to write a novel?

MJ: It’s called I Was Waiting for You, an erotic thriller that Accent Press will publish in November. It features the return of Cornelia, the beautiful, amoral hit woman who appeared in Because She Thought She Loved Me [1997], On Tenderness Express [2000], and Confessions of a Romantic Pornographer [2004].

MG: So, what can readers expect from this new novel of yours?

MJ: Well, it’s my usual blend of crime tropes: lust, sadness, a writer down on his luck who is asked to find the missing daughter of an Italian surgeon, and embarks on an adventure partly inspired by Antonioni’s film, L’Avventura, and Louis Malle’s Le Feu Follet. Everyone seeks the missing girl, but in doing so their paths cross, relationships begin and flounder, and bad things happen to good people, to the extent that midway through the book the search for Giulia is almost abandoned! The body count continues, though, thanks to Cornelia. Not your typical crime book, I fear.

MG: Murder One is now a “closed case,” so to speak. We’re sorry to have lost a regular port of call in London. We could open old wounds and talk about the decision to end the adventure of a specialty crime bookshop, the uncertain future of independent bookstores, the impact of Amazon, possible regrets, and so on. Instead, we’d like to hear about something odd or amusing that you particularly remember in connection with that Charing Cross Road bookshop.

MJ: Lots of great memories and good times. Including the years when we used to supply a convent in West London. Two small nuns would come in every six weeks or so with a list of books to be bought for other sisters and also for “father.” Needless to say, they were all very cozy choices, Golden Age of Detection stuff. The shop and the staff would invariably be blessed on the way out. Sadly, the nuns were terribly elderly and eventually stopped coming to us for their book supplies of Dorothy L. Sayers, Michael Innes, [Freeman Wills] Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, and others. I reckon we lost our blessings and were damned from that moment on!

MG: The nuns stopped coming, the shop had to close, but you moved off in an exciting new direction. Congratulations on your publishing imprint, MaxCrime, from John Blake Ltd. How did it come about? What sort of fiction should we expect from Max Crime? And how do you see the imprint developing?

MJ: Well, in a way, it was full circle back to what I used to do before. It wasn’t something I had planned, and the initial approach was from John Blake, who had been very successful in non-fiction areas, including true crime. Naturally, there was no way I could turn down such a generous offer, even though I had planned to partly retire and just devote my time to writing again. Because of the nature of Blake’s publishing, we agreed at an early stage on the list’s profile--i.e., it would be a mass-market, commercially orientated imprint, which is what the book trade would expect of his company, with books that could be sold in chains and supermarkets where he has strong ties. My intention was (and is) to develop a strong and varied list, so from the onset we have female P.I.s, historical thrillers, caper comedies, noir, hard-­boiled, gangster novels, Everyman-in-peril tales, and so on. As we progress we may narrow it down, but for now I want to publish in all crime areas. John wanted my name to be openly associated with the list so we came up with the name “Maximum Crime,” but once the book covers began to be designed, we realized that the logo was too large/long for the book’s spines, so we renamed it “MaxCrime” instead!

MG: Which crime writers will you be publishing this year?

MJ: We’ve just launched the imprint with two books in March. The first is Hit, by Tara Moss. Tara is a best-selling crime writer in Australia, but somehow she’d never been published in the UK (a few titles appeared in the USA some years back; Leisure gave her the worst possible covers). It is slick, fast-moving female P.I. action with a great heroine [Sydney-based Makedde Vanderwall]. We have bought all five books in the series so far, and will be publishing them six months apart. Tara is an incredible personality and highly promotable, which the Blake marketing machine will be exploiting to the full, needless to say. Also part of the launch is the first novel by friend and film director Mike Hodges, who was responsible for Croupier, Get Carter, and many other classics. Mike had written his first novel at the age of 73, Watching the Wheels Come Off, a dark comedy about a failed con man. I swooped on the book before anyone else could get to it. The novel has already appeared in France to great acclaim, thanks to his film connections.

MG: Sounds exciting. What else can we look forward to?

MJ: In April, we have Donna Moore’s Old Dogs, a caper novel with a witty difference. I believe that Donna has the potential to become a Scottish Janet Evanovich. I’d been a great fan of her work in small presses, so I was very glad to sign her up. Accompanying her is Mark Timlin’s Guns of Brixton, a heavily revised version of his powerful south London gangster novel, Answers from the Grave [2005], which had only been confidentially published by the Do Not Press some years back, before they went under, and was never promoted or issued in paperback.

Then, from May, we move to our cruising speed of a book a month. We also have the first novel by Kate Kray, the widow of one of the notorious ’60s gangsters. She had written a fair bit of non-fiction already and her novel is about the London mob scene, of course, but with a strong ring of truth. Also, there is our first translation, The Girl with the Crystal Eyes, by Barbara Baraldi, translated from the Italian by Barry Forshaw’s wife, Judith. It is a gothic “giallo” [yellow is the Italian term for thriller; Mondadori thriller covers were all bright yellow] with echoes of Hitchcock and Dario Argento and strong female characters on both sides of the good and evil divide. It could the first in a series. The sequel has just been published in Italy this month, so there’ll be more if we do well enough with the first one. Other upcoming titles include Kris Rusch’s Hitler’s Angel. [After being] highlighted on publication by The New York Times with a full-page review, her U.S. publisher, St. Martin’s Press, just dumped [the book] and never released it in paperback. It’s a thriller focusing on the notorious “suicide” of Hitler’s niece [Geli Raubal] ...

MG: We both read Ronald Hayman’s Hitler & Geli (1997). A particularly odd story.

MJ: In [Hitler’s Angel], a young American journalist sets out to get to the bottom of the case. Kris Rusch is also known as “Kris Nelscott,” and she has won lots of awards for science fiction as Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

Later on, in the autumn, we have Blonde on a Stick, a terrific hard-boiled tale about a Liverpool serial killer moving to London, by noted horror writer Conrad Williams. He moves into the crime arena with impeccable style. The Women’s Club, by Canadian authors Michael Crawley and Laurie Clayton, is a thriller in the James Patterson mold. Michael and Laurie are major authors in the erotica field, where they write as “Felix Baron and Madeline Moore.” I strongly believe in encouraging writers from other genres to move into crime.

In both cases, the results are splendid. Lots of other things are planned for next year, but time will tell.

MG: How do you select foreign authors for the imprint, and what sort of an impact do you think they will have on the UK market? We are thinking particularly of Barbara Baraldi, a young Italian writer whom we’ve met, and whose books we have enjoyed in Italian.

MJ: Because of translation costs, I can’t develop too much of a foreign-language list, so the initial one is a bit of a gamble. Barbara’s book is very exciting, but also short. She is very attractive and distinctive, too, so hopefully those factors will help in publicizing the book. Naturally, if it does well enough, I’d be encouraged to try some further books in translation. Having been brought up in Europe, and still being involved in the scene in France and Italy, I read in both languages and feel there is a wealth of great talents which deserves to be translated: Romain Slocombe, Dominique Sylvain, Marc Villard, Simone Sarasso, Tommaso Pincio, Andrea Pinketts. So, again fingers are crossed. ... It would be nice to prove that non-Scandinavian [European] crime authors can establish themselves.

MG: As many Rap Sheet readers may know, you are highly respected in the film world. By way of a conclusion, would you care to recommend some upcoming crime films and crime novels that we ought to take the time to see or read in 2010?

MJ: Many of this year’s big guns won’t be unveiled until the Cannes Film Festival in May, but right now my best hopes for the coming months are Michael Winterbottom’s new version of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (which created a stir at the Sundance Festival) and Luc Besson’s live version of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a wonderful French comic strip series by Jacques Tardi; the trailer looks very appetizing. I’d also highlight a small British indie crime film which was shown at the London Film Festival, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, by J. Blakeson, featuring Eddie Marsan and Gemma Arterton; really small budget and harrowing, but it should make a splash when it comes out early in the summer.

On the book front, I have just read Toby Litt’s new novel, King Death. It is very different from his earlier Corpsing, a sort of modern Agatha Christie “Tommy and Tuppence” tale involving a witty duo of involuntary sleuths set loose on a curious case, which acts out around London’s Borough Market and Guy’s Hospital. Toby skips continuously between genres, often stepping inside the crime and mystery perimeter with great success. Also coming out in May is Scott Turow’s 20 years-in-the-coming sequel to Presumed Innocent. It is called just Innocent, and it will blow your socks off.

Rivalries, Resurrections, Replacements

• Nominating ballots for the 2010 Anthony Awards were recently sent to people who attended Bouchercon in Indianapolis last year and/or are registered for this October’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. “According to the Bouchercon by-laws,” explained a note that was sent out a few days earlier, ballot recipients “are eligible to make up to five nominations in each of five categories, from books and short stories published the previous year: Best Novel; Best First Novel; Best Paperback Original; Best Short Story; Best Critical Non-fiction Work.” If you haven’t received yours, drop a note to this year’s Anthony Awards chair, Andi Shechter, at andi@bcon2010.com. Ballots must be completed and returned by no later than May 28 to be valid.

• The new short-story offering in Beat to a Pulp is called “The Pickle” and comes from Montana freelance writer Chris La Tray.

• The second issue of the newly re-created Webzine Crimefactory was posted on Friday. Click here to read the issue in PDF format, or to download it onto one of those trendy little electronic reader gizmos. Among the contents are stories by Ray Banks, Patti Abbott, Gerard Brennan, and Dave Zeltserman. There are also features from Jimmy Callaway, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Craig McDonald.

• Also up: The latest edition of Pulp Metal Magazine.

• Tomorrow will begin Round Four of Jen Forbus’ “World’s Favorite Detective” tournament. The competition has been narrowed down to just eight contenders: Harry Bosch, Sam Spade, Sherlock Holmes, Lincoln Rhyme, Elvis Cole, Philip Marlowe, Hercule Poirot, and Dave Robicheaux. I was saddened to see Lew Archer, Alan Banks, and John Rebus lose out in the last round. But tomorrow is another day, as Scarlett O’Hara once said. Check back here on Monday to pick your favorite four among the remaining rivals.

• A new John Rebus story from Ian Rankin? You’d better believe it! Written to benefit the British charity Royal Blind, the tale is called “The Very Last Drop” and can be enjoyed here. (Hat tip to Spinetingler Magazine.)

• FOX’s once-popular espionage TV series, 24, has finally been cancelled after a eight-year run. The last episode will air on May 24. NBC-TV, which had supposedly been interested in picking up the Keifer Sutherland drama, ultimately declined that opportunity. I gave up on 24 after its second season, which seemed to be bursting with clichés and unbelievable incidents. But obviously the show maintained enough of a fan base to survive without my watching. I’m sorry for those fans, but they can at least rest assured that there’s a film version of 24 in the works.

Honey West lives on--at least in comic-book form.

• As we await the two-part season premiere of Law & Order: Criminal Intent this coming Tuesday, March 30, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA Network, Joan Reeves laments the departure of Vincent D’Onofrio--who plays the intense Detective Robert Goren--from the series, now entering its ninth season. Jeff Goldblum, who was introduced to the show last season as Detective Zack Nichols, will stay with the show, to be joined by a new partner, Serena Stevens, played by Saffron Burrows. Kathryn Erbe, who so ably portrayed Goren’s partner, Detective Alex Eames, is also leaving the show.

• Mister 8 pays tribute to comic book editor and artist Dick Giordano, who passed away last week at age 77. Among Giordano’s many credits, he worked on the Sarge Steel secret agent series. Mark Evanier has more on Giordano’s legacy here and here.

• For My Book, the Movie, author J.T. Ellison casts the film version of The Cold Room, her fourth Detective Taylor Jackson novel. Personally, I’d take any of her suggestions of actresses to play Jackson. More here.

• Don’t forget to register for ThrillerFest V, which is scheduled to run from July 7 to 10 in New York City.

• And J. Sydney Jones is putting me to shame as an interviewer. How in the heck does he find so much time and energy to talk with crime novelists from around the world? Anyway, his latest conversation is with Icelander Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the author of My Soul to Take, released last year in the States by William Morrow.

Hunt at the Edge of Memory

It’s been just over two years since Watergate burglar and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt died at age 88. But only now has author-blogger Bill Crider resurrected a couple of pieces about Hunt from the old Paperback Quarterly. Clickety-clack here to read an interview with Hunt, and here to read Crider’s essay about his fiction from the same 1979 issue of PQ. Crider also offers up--here and here--a few of the wonderful covers from Hunt’s early novels.

Carnival of the Lost

Only recently, novelist Kelli Stanley wrote about Nightmare Alley, by William Linday Gresham, as part of The Rap Sheet’s “forgotten books” series. Now comes word that NYRB Classics will reissue Gresham’s 1946 novel next in paperback in early April. I already have my order in for a copy!

Richard Rayner has more to say about Gresham’s long-out-of-print work in the Los Angeles Times.

(Hat tip to Sarah Weinman.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Time to Help a Fellow Reader

You may recall that a couple of months back, a large portion of Independent Crime blogger Nathan Cain’s library was sacrificed in an apartment fire. Now, he’s asking readers for ideas to help him rebuild and enhance his collection.

“I have money to spend on 250 paperbacks and 150 large paperbacks,” Cain wrote earlier today. “It will be reimbursed by my insurance company up to a point. What I’m asking you to do is make comments on what you think I should buy. I have an opportunity here to build a new library from the ground up, so I just don’t want crime fiction suggestions (although I do want crime fiction suggestions). I want to know what you think I should own.”

You can leave your recommendations here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Book You Have to Read: “The Great Zapruder Film Hoax,” by James H. Fetzer

(Editor’s note: This is the 87th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s pick comes from Michael Atkinson, author of Hemingway Deadlights [2009], which he describes as the first book in “a projected series, gallivanting around in the most famous literary biography of the 20th century with negligible respect for history but a veins-in-the-teeth yen for truth, irony, cocktails and the good graces of a well-turned sentence.” The sequel, Hemingway Cutthroat, is expected to be released later this year by Minotaur Books. When not sending Ernest Hemingway into trouble, Atkinson is a film critic and widely published poet.)

I’ve rarely been as completely bedeviled by a true-crime book as I was by James H. Fetzer’s The Great Zapruder Film Hoax: Deceit and Deception in the Death of JFK (2003), one of the newest and most outlandish tomes tossed onto the huge pile of books already dedicated to what is, quite possibly, the most epic unsolved crime of 20th-century America. By now, with Fetzer’s book, published by the secretive conspiracy-theorist firm Catfeet Press, investigative culture has moved beyond wondering who was responsible for the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy--a matter that true conspiracists may be agnostic about at this point. Not only may we never find out the answer, but it may in fact be unknowable. The question that remains is whether that assassination happened at all--or, at least, whether it happened the way we thought, where and when we thought. Reality itself is under the microscope.

Personally, I’m sympathetic--conspiracy freaks turn me on even when they’re crazy, because they’re the ultimate questioners of power. And crazy doesn’t always mean wrong. Go ahead and define “conspiracy theory” as the terror-stricken belief that cataclysmic events are the handiwork of a covert federation of organizations and individuals operating under the public radar for their own self-serving reasons, and that we--the newspaper readers, voters, tax-payers, and television slaves--are being manipulated and lied to as our society is exploited for reasons understood only to the conspirators. What else is new? Doesn’t that clearly describe a lot of 20th-century history (and almost all eight years of the Bush administration)?

There’s no point in denying that conspiracists do have something legitimate to worry about. As even several congressional committees have admitted by now, the JFK assassination was a conspiracy. That’s official. If you accuse FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of the 1969 assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, how would that make you a paranoid nut and not merely a reader of The New York Times? Much of the dismissive discussion about conspiracy theories (JFK, 9/11, and others) proceeds today as if, say, President Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t lie about the Gulf of Tonkin; as if Operation Ajax hadn’t happened or hadn’t been exposed in the Times; as if Watergate were just a hotel; as if COINTELPRO had not been exposed; as if Henry Kissinger didn’t conspire toward the illegal decimations of Indochina, Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, and Iraq; as if the Reagan Doctrine hadn’t semi-secretly turned Central America into a butcher’s basket; as if Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney hadn’t written up plans to wage war on Iraq and North Korea in 1992, and so on. What’s not to be suspicious about? In the last 50 years Americans have outpaced all their competition in terms of obsession and dread, because this is where the money trail leads. It’s as simple as that. Conspiracies are the norm.

Still, Fetzer’s book takes off into a speculative/analytic ozone from which your brain may never return. In 483 densely packed pages, the author (who sports a Ph.D. after his name and is a now-retired professor from the University of Minnesota) makes the case that the Zapruder film--a home movie showing President Kennedy on his last, deadly motorcade ride through Dallas, Texas’ Dealey Plaza, and is supposedly the inviolable yardstick by which all JFK theories are measured (including the Warren Report)--is not an authentic document. In literally dozens of different ways, Fetzer strives to demonstrate how the film has been edited and optically printed to such a radical extent that it can only be considered a work of complete fiction. You confront this premise with pure incredulity: How could something so simple as an 8-mm chunk of film, one so rough and amateurish, one that is so plainly a single, uninterrupted shot; how could this have been manipulated? Fetzer has theories about “who,” but they remain largely unexplored; his emphasis is on “proving” the film’s illegitimacy.

Which he does ... kind of. The sleuthing approach is fourth-gear techie-mania, like a never-ending episode of CSI devoted to a single piece of confounding evidence. Fetzer and his co-writers and cohorts focus on missing frames, background image distortion or lack of it, inconsistencies in focus, the rate at which the film was shot (16 frames per second, it’s presumed) versus the rate at which it was printed (24 fps), and the subtle aspect-ratio variations in various “versions” of the film as it has been selectively released to the public. They also offer up, most maddeningly, reams of speculative “evidence”--based on “off” perspectives and contradictions with photographs taken by others on the scene--that people, signs, and landscape elements were added or subtracted from Zapruder’s original, wherever or whatever that may be. At least, we can all agree, there shouldn’t be two or more “versions” of it, should there? Because there are.

Sounds crazy, I know. Who could’ve done all that to a rough piece of slender home movie in 1963? But Fetzer has an answer, exploring the optical printing technology of the time, which absolutely was capable of fabricating and altering ostensibly “homemade images,” most of which are so blurry in the film’s printed form (the work of Life magazine and U.S. intelligence agencies) that it may be impossible to say what belongs in the image and what doesn’t. Of course, the fact that the camera negative of the film has never been, and may never be, available to scrutiny only strengthens Fetzer’s position.

Or at least he thinks so. Typical of conspiracy discourse, this book is jam-packed with outrageous supposition and assertive conjecture--every hint at discrepancy is rock-hard proof of skulduggery, practically from the first page. The general voice is that of the indignant, persecuted apostate, who takes every opportunity to proclaim his own brilliance. It remains open to interpretation whether or not the book has a case to make--that is, whether it is investigating a real and not imagined phenomenon, and therefore reveals a concept of official American power many times more terrifying than the darkest doubts we may’ve harbored so far, Oliver Stone or no Oliver Stone. But it’s a trip in the reading, wherever you stand at the outset--a walk through the brainpan of a titanically obsessive paranoid, which has the suction of an opiate the more you begin to suspect, that however insane Fetzer may be, he might just be a little right. What if he is? And a little right is all he needs to bring the nightmares.

Best Left Unforgotten

Although Michael Atkinson’s “forgotten books” post on this page today covers a non-fiction book about crime, James H. Fetzer’s The Great Zapruder Film Hoax, other entries in the continuing series tackle novels drawn from the mystery and thriller section. Some of those recommended titles are: The Venetian Blonde, by the late A.S. Fleischman; Death at Hollows End, by Leo Bruce; The Lawyer’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon; Billingsgate Shoal, by Rick Boyer; The Crooked Hinge, by John Dickson Carr; Cold Comfort, by Don Bredes; And Sudden Death, by Cleve F. Adams; Trans-Siberian Express, by Warren Adler; Before She Dies, by Steve F. Havill; A Private Inquiry, by Jessica Mann; Spy Story, by Len Deighton; and Tom Logan’s Detroit PD series.

To locate a full list of today’s participating writers, click over to Patti Abbott’s blog. There you will also find recommendations of three more neglected novels, including The Last Night, by John McPartland.

All the News That Fits

• In Mystery Fanfare, J.B. Kohl and Eric Beetner write about the challenges they faced when composing their first joint novel, One Too Many Blows to the Head. “Whenever I mention that J.B. Kohl and I have never met, despite having written a novel ... together,” says Beetner, “people are both fascinated and confused. How could we pull this off? How could we combine such a detailed creative process as writing a book without constant meetings and communication? The short answer: it was easy.” Read more here.

• The seemingly ubiquitous Keith Rawson talks with Victor Gischler about the latter’s forthcoming novel, The Deputy. Rawson says the book marks Gischler’s “welcome return to hard-boiled crime fiction.”

• Meanwhile, J. Sydney Jones chats up Jeff Siger, author of the Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series (Murder in Mykonos and Assassins of Athens).

• And Cornelia Reads gives Powell’s Books the lowdown on her soon-to-be released third Madeline Dare novel, Invisible Boy.

• In addition to hosting author and editor William F. Nolan, this summer’s PulpFest in Columbus, Ohio, will also feature the prolific Robert J. Randisi. Learn more about PulpFest here.

• We’ve talked here a few times about independent publisher Crippen & Landru’s The Columbo Collection (originally titled The Columbo Stories). The volume will contain 14 new tales about Los Angeles Police Lieutenant Columbo, written by William Link, who with Richard Levinson created NBC-TV’s beloved 1970s series, Columbo. Well, I’d fully expected to see the finished work by this time, but reports are that its release has been held up by Link, who continued to tinker with the tales much longer than expected. C&L’s Doug Greene says the book has now been sent to the printer and should be bound by April 25. Excellent news!

• From British author Mark Billingham comes news that UK broadcaster Sky1 has started “production on Thorne: Sleepyhead and ... [commissioned] Thorne: Scaredy Cat, both adaptations of the Mark Billingham best-sellers. Both films will be produced for a UK TV premiere on Sky1 HD and Sky1 before a worldwide theatrical release by ContentFilm. The films were commissioned by Huw Kennair Jones, Commissioning Editor, Drama, Sky1 HD and Sky1 and Thorne: Sleepyhead will be directed by Emmy Award winner Stephen Hopkins (24, Californication, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) from scripts adapted by Jim Keeble and Dudi Appleton (Trial & Retribution, Silent Witness). Sky1 will broadcast the films as a six-part drama series in the autumn.” More information can be found here.

• That’s some auction Otto Penzler has planned for next month.

• And Michael Connelly plays a bit of hardball:The Hollywood Reporter is reporting that Michael Connelly is suing Paramount over excessive costs associated with the author's buy-back of the exclusive rights given to the studio for the first two books in his Harry Bosch series, The Black Echo and The Black Ice ...” Click here if you would like to learn more.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

So Long, Robert Culp

TV Confidential offers a fine tribute to actor Robert Culp, former co-star of the small-screen series I Spy (1965-1968), who perished earlier today after hitting his head in a fall outside his Los Angeles home. The New York Times’ obituary of Culp can be found here, while the L.A. Times weighs in on his passing here and here. Blog tributes are available here, here, here, and here.

I was rather too young to be an I Spy enthusiast, though in more recent years I have certainly watched episodes of that groundbreaking series (which also starred Bill Cosby). My own strongest memories of Culp come from his four guest-star appearances (three of them in the early 1970s, one in 1990) on Columbo, and from his short-lived rotation as one of the lead media investigators on NBC’s The Name of the Game. He brought an intensity, credibility, and human depth to his roles that was hard to top.

Robert Culp was 79 years old.

READ MORE:Why I Spy Was a Big Deal” (The HMSS Weblog); “Culp on Cain’s Hundred,” by Marty McKee (Johnny LaRue’s Crane Shot); “Obit: Robert Culp, R.I.P.,” by Christopher Mills (Spy-fi Channel); “Culp,” by Stephen Bowie (The Classic TV History Blog).

Hail the Independents

Speaking of writing awards nominations, ForeWord Reviews has posted its rundown of finalists for the 2009 Book of the Year Awards. Included among the awards’ 60 categories is one covering mystery fiction from independent publishers:

Death at Solstice, by Lucha Corpi
Deer Season, by Aaron Stander
Dixie Noir, by Kirk Curnutt
Every Boat Turns South, by J.P. White
Hard Stop, by Chris Knopf
In Their Blood, by Sharon Potts
Jump, by Tim Maleeny
Justice for All, by Radclyffe
Quiet Teacher, by Arthur Rosenfeld
Rupture, by A. Scott Pearson
The Big Wake-Up, by Mark Coggins
The Khan Dilemma, by Ron Goodreau
The Pier, by Bill Noel
Tower, by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman
Why Did You Die in the Park? by Patricia K. Batta
Wrath, by Robert Santora
Wyatt’s Revenge, by H. Terrell Griffin

According to the ForeWord Web site, “The winners will be determined by a panel of librarians and booksellers selected from our readership. Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners, as well as Editor’s Choice Prizes for Fiction and Non-fiction will be announced at a special program at BookExpo America in New York City on May 25. The winners of the two Editor’s Choice Prizes will be awarded $1,500 each. The ceremony is open to all BEA attendees.”

Making the Shorts Cut

Some of my colleagues in other time zones had a chance to jump on this news earlier, but it’s still worth noting here that Spinetingler Magazine has announced its 2010 list of Best Short Story on the Web nominees. This year’s 10 contenders are:

A Wild and Crazy Night,” by John Kenyon (from Beat to a Pulp)
At Least I Felt Something,” by Sophie Littlefield (from The Drowning Machine)
Blurred Lines,” by Michael Moreci (from A Twist of Noir)
Flesh Rule,” by Frank Bill (from Plots with Guns)
Insatiable,” by Hilary Davidson (from Beat to a Pulp)
My Father’s Son,” by Alan Griffiths (from A Twist of Noir)
M-N-S (n) murder-necrophilia-suicide,” by Anonymous 9 (from Plots with Guns)
The Present,” by Mark Joseph Kiewlak (from A Twist of Noir)
Survival Instincts,” by Sandra Seamans (from Pulp Pusher)
The Tut,” by Paul D. Brazill (from Beat to a Pulp)

A full list of Spinetingler Award nominees is expected next week. At that time, Web readers will be invited to vote for their favorite nominees in this and other categories.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pushed Out of the Game

Just three years after its introduction in April 2007, the UK-based Webzine Pulp Pusher has suddenly folded. The man behind that well-regarded project, author Tony Black (Loss), confirmed this sad news in an e-mail note this morning:
Yep, Pulp Pusher is being put out to stud. None of us really have the time to do it anymore. We had a good run, met some fabulous folks along the way, and will likely miss all the chaos, but it’s just got too tough finding the time to put it all together. I don’t rule out it being resurrected in some form or another at some point down the track, but for now it’s end of. We had some fabulous contributors, like Nick Stone, Cathi Unsworth and Ray Banks, and interviewed some of the greats ... [Andrew] Vachss, [Ian] Rankin and [Ken] Bruen, to name three, and I’ll always be grateful to those who got involved and became a part of Pusher along the years, but nothing lasts forever.
Unfortunately, the site hasn’t been left up as an archive, so all links from other sites (including this one) now lead to nowhere. Too bad.

But Arizona writer Keith Rawson, one of the people behind the new Webzine, Crimefactory, has generously offered to pick up the slack. In a note posted in his blog yesterday, he offered “to do something for those authors who formerly had stories, interviews and articles on Pulp Pusher. If you’d like, I will convert your story into a PDF and I will archive it on the Crimefactory Web site. If the response is great enough, I’ll gather the stories together and edit them into an e-book anthology so that these stories will never disappear.”

Anybody interested in this offer should contact Rawson at rawsonkeith_at_gmaildotcom

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Dead Man Who Can Still Draw a Crowd

I have been very busy of late in my “real life,” and hence pretty quiet in the blogosphere. However, I’ve popped my head up long enough to share my excitement at viewing Martin Scorcese’s big-screen adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, and to record an interview with the BBC Culture Show having to do with my love of crime and thriller fiction, which should be televised sometime in May.

My foremost thrill of late, though, was receiving this invitation:


Being a confirmed Stieg Larsson fan, I wasn’t about to say no to the ambassador. But attending his party did present travel challenges.

I already had to be in London on Wednesday evening, the 17th, to enjoy Penguin UK’s crime-fiction cocktail party. I was compelled to leave that fête early, though, in order to catch a red-eye flight to Glasgow, Scotland, where a business meeting was being held early the next morning, Thursday. To attend the “Crimes of the Millennium” party, I then had to hop a plane back to London right after my business in Scotland was done. Fortunately, not every week is quite so busy for yours truly.

Arriving at the Swedish Embassy in Portland Place on Thursday night with only minutes to spare before the Larsson festivities commenced, I bumped into Gold Dagger Award-winning novelist Ann Cleeves, along with my fellow Shots contributor, Ayo Onatade, who arrived with Barry and Judith Forshaw. After a brief chat, they all went inside, while I stayed to greet Quercus Publishing CEO Mark Smith and his colleague Ron Beard, who had kindly invited me last year to attend a private screening of the subtitled Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I congratulated them both on the phenomenal success of Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy,” to which Quercus had secured the English-translation rights, after others gave it the thumbs-down. It’s no secret that, thanks in part to the Larsson books, Quercus Publishing survived one of the most dreadful economic declines to face publishing--or any other kind of business--in recent memory.

Finally stepping inside the doors of the embassy, I was astounded to see the elbow-to-elbow turnout of people. Among them of course was a beaming Christopher MacLehose, under whose Quercus imprint, MacLehose Press, the three Larsson thrillers were first published in English. It was good to mingle with Selina Walker of Transworld, critic Michael Carlson, the Euro Crime team of Karen Meek and Maxine Clarke, Bob Cornwell of Tangled Web and Crime Time, Chris Simmons of Crime Squad, John Dugdale of The Guardian and The Sunday Times, and many others. I also found delight in seeing so many Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Award winners in the audience, among them Andrew Taylor, Francis Fyfield, and the aforementioned Cleeves, who has long championed English-translated crime fiction. The opinion was unanimous that Stieg Larsson’s work has made an indelible impression on both the crime-fiction genre and general book publishing worldwide.

As we sipped our drinks, Ambassador Carlsson stepped up to the microphone and welcomed us all to the Swedish Embassy for this literary celebration. He remarked that prior to coming to England in 2004, he had not been a big mystery/thriller reader, but since then, he’s observed the British love of Scandinavian crime fiction and become an enthusiastic convert. Not surprisingly, that statement was met with a rousing round of applause.

Soon afterward, we were lead into the room set aside for that evening’s main event, the panel debate on the subject of Swedish mystery fiction. Carlsson indicated that this conversation would be taped for the British Library, which was a nice touch.

BBC Radio presenter Mark Lawson opened what turned out to be an excellent and periodically funny exchange by noting that the Millennium Trilogy has now been translated into 44 languages, and that Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2008) was the first translated novel to reach the No. 1 spot on British bestseller lists. Eva Gedin, Larsson’s editor at Swedish publisher Norstedts, expressed her sadness at knowing the author never witnessed the full extent of his success. She added, though, that he knew he’d written something special when in 2004, there was a real buzz over Dragon Tattoo at the annual Frankfurt Book Fair. She said that Larsson was very excited to hear that Random House/Bertelsmann AG had bought the first overseas rights to his novel, because he believed that such a sale to a large house was an indication of foreign publishing’s faith in his fiction writing. Unfortunately, Larsson’s sudden death on November 9 of that same year left Norstedts with a problem: most international publishers weren’t interested in purchasing rights to the work of a deceased and middle-aged novelist who had left behind only three books.

(Left) Quercus CEO Mark Smith and Swedish editor Eva Gedin

When the panelists were asked why Larsson’s work has become such a global phenomenon, Barry Forshaw (author of the forthcoming book, The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson) suggested that it may have to do in part with Larsson’s tragically early demise and the fact that he was a journalist who exposed neo-Nazi extremism, as well as the fact that Larsson created a bitter legal battle because he didn’t leave a will behind. All of that helped build a legend around Larsson. Gedin disagreed, pointing out that the books were a huge hit in Sweden even before all of the conspiracy tales and the lack of a will came into the public line of sight. For his own part, Swedish author Håkan Nesser (Woman with Birthmark) suggested that human beings are very susceptible to hype, and that the Swedes are extremely good at hyping things, whether it be the pop music group ABBA or tennis player Björn Borg. The hype surrounding Larsson, he said, has been further exacerbated by each story (like this one) that talks about the hype itself. Fellow author Lynda La Plante chalked up the success of Larsson (as well as Dan Brown and Thomas Harris) to word-of-mouth publicity. She said that she can still remember where and when she first picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--reading it was that powerful. La Plante added that she still thinks Dragon Tattoo is the best entry in Larsson’s trilogy. The Girl Who Played with Fire, she opined, is too much of a conventional action thriller, while The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (due for release in the States in May) is too confusing, due to its vast array of characters, many bearing similar names.

Gedin and Forshaw went on to explain that Larsson’s work pays homage to the crime-fiction conventions of the genre, offering nods and winks to Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky, and Elizabeth George, all of whom are mentioned in the novels. Forshaw noted that Larsson had based the character of Lisbeth Salander on Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s renowned Pippi Longstocking, trying to imagine what that little fictional girl might have been like had she grown into a woman. Gedin mentioned that Larsson based his books’ plots on real-life events, and that--being a meticulous researcher--he had studied many real serial-killer cases before sitting down to compose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When it came to the question of sexual violence in Larsson’s work, Barry Forshaw observed that there is a divide in opinion regarding Larsson’s feminism. He cited Val McDermid’s opinion that the Larsson novels are pro-feminist--because the male lead, Mikael Blomkvist, plays the “slut/bimbo” (a reversal of a fiction cliché), sleeping with anything that bears a decent pulse. Others took an opposite view, as they recalled the extreme violence inflicted upon Lisbeth Salander. Forshaw mused that Larsson had demonstrated “wish fulfillment” by creating a middle-aged journalist who could still attract beautiful young women. In an aside, the critic said he was glad that angle of Blomkvist’s character had been toned down for the movie version.

During the event’s question-and-answer segment, a member of the audience asked about the legal battle between Stieg Larsson’s partner of many years, Eva Gabrielsson, and his father, Erland, and brother, Joakim, who inherited author Larsson’s estate. Editor Gedin surprised us all by saying she thinks that that fight will soon reach its conclusion. When somebody else asked why Larsson had failed to file a proper will, Gedin said the answer was simple: he did not think he was going to die. And in response to rumors that Larsson had left behind on his laptop computer some 400 pages of an unfinished fourth manuscript, Gedin suggested the rumor was incorrect. She said that the three existing books form a satisfying trilogy and are a complete work within themselves, offering a sense of closure and leaving no necessity for a fourth installment.

I got in a question, as well. I asked Gedin how many of the 44 translated versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo have used that as the first book’s name, rather than Larsson’s original Swedish title, Men Who Hate Women. She reckoned it was about 50/50, with the German editions using another title altogether, Damnation.

As the evening wound to a close, the panelists were applauded and other attendees bid each other good night. I thanked the Swedish ambassador and his staff for inviting me to this event, and then went off to catch a train homeward. While I sat on board, I contemplated what Lynda La Plante had said about remembering where she’d been when she first enjoyed Stieg Larsson’s work. I have a no-less-strong recollection of one feverish night in December 2007, when nothing in this world could have stopped me from finishing Dragon Tattoo. That novel, like Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, changed my thinking. It made me realize that, even when you believe you have read everything worth your time, it’s still possible for a book to come along that can refresh a genre, provide new insights, and stir up your reading passions once more.

A very heartening realization, indeed.

* * *

Before leaving the Swedish Embassy that evening, I convinced critic/author Barry Forshaw to tell Rap Sheet readers something of what he’d learned about Stieg Larsson while penning his biography, The Man Who Left Too Soon. What follows is the short essay he sent to me on the day after the party:

As the posthumous success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy seems to grow to ever-more unprecedented levels, with worldwide sales in the millions, it is an apposite time to celebrate the life and work of an intriguing, courageous--and self-destructive--man. Of course, extremely talented people often possess a certain carelessness with regard to their own health, for a variety of reasons. Leonard Bernstein certainly matched Stieg Larsson in terms of a prodigious nicotine intake, but preferred haute cuisine to the junk food that was another element in Stieg Larsson’s own reckless lifestyle.

Bernstein, however, believed he was one of the gods and that the health strictures which ordinary mortals were obliged to take note of simply didn’t apply to him--knowing that he was an immortal in terms of his music, he ill-advisedly applied this mindset to his much-abused body. With Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, aged 50, the scenario was rather different, and the combination of what might be called a Protestant work ethic and a fierce desire to right the wrongs of the world were partly behind the cavalier approach to his own well-being. What counted was the work--not maintaining the instrument that carried it out.

It goes without saying that Larsson’s early death is a crucial element in the mythic qualities that his life and work have come to possess. But it is the innovation and intelligence of the Millennium Trilogy (along with its trenchant and fierce social critiques, so much a part of Larsson’s own crusading personality) that are among the real reasons behind the all-conquering acclaim the books have engendered.

Just as Larsson cannily pays out chunks of information to his readers to create a total picture, it seemed to me appropriate to attempt something similar in The Man Who Left Too Soon, the book I was commissioned to write. The approach I have taken is piecemeal, utilizing a variety of elements--Stieg’s life, his influential journalistic career as a courageous fighter against extremist organizations, his relatives, his publishers, his translators, the successful movies being made from his books--and the acrimonious dispute over his legacy. I’ve been lucky enough to speak to most of the people concerned, but like virtually all readers of the novels, I never had a chance to meet the author, for whom the phrase “taken too soon” could have been coined.

Larsson aficionados will be aware that his biography is, to some extent, to be found in his books--hence the concentration here on the three novels of his trilogy, with biographical data built into these sections rather than hived off into separate chapters (though his life is addressed separately). So at the center of this study (to be read, of course, only after reading the novels themselves) is a thoroughgoing examination of the phenomenally successful novels in the trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest, which comprise one of the most striking and innovative trilogies in modern fiction. And for all their faults (fully discussed in the book alongside their felicities), the auguries are that the books will join the pantheon of the very finest popular literature, to be read for generations to come.