Thursday, June 30, 2011

Driven to Admiration

“The Roadster” during a trip to Banff, Canada, in 2007.

One week ago today I lost an old and very dear friend who, despite never having offered a word of appreciation or any declaration of support, ultimately saved my life.

At about 9:20 a.m. on Thursday, June 23, I was driving back home after dropping my wife off at her office in downtown Seattle. As usual, I was behind the wheel of my wonderful 2002, metallic gray Saab 9-3, a sporty little vehicle that’s seen me through some nightmarish roads trips, multiple visits to my brother and other family members in Portland, Oregon, and one 781-mile round-trip vacation up north to the Canadian resort town of Banff, Alberta, in 2007.

Only 11 blocks from my house, on a relatively quiet neighborhood thoroughfare, I stopped well behind a Subaru Forester that was signaling to make a left-hand turn across traffic. All of a sudden, I looked up in my rearview mirror and saw a big blue car barreling down on me from behind. Knowing that it was going to hit me, and without any time to swing out of its way, I slammed my foot down hard on the brake, hoping to stop the Saab from smashing into the car in front of us.

Sure enough, I was rear-ended. Hard. The car responsible, a 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass, was traveling at 30-plus miles an hour--and I don’t remember hearing its breaks. The Cutlass was ruined, its grill disappearing into dust and its front end buckled as far as it could go without throwing the engine into the passenger compartment. My lovely Saab, being much better made, suffered less damage, but its back end was pushed forward enough that I couldn’t drive it, without the rear bumper scraping my back tires.

The 20-something woman driving that Olds Cutlass admitted to the police officer who showed up to make the accident report that she’d been looking down at her cell phone and chatting with her girlfriend in the car, and hadn’t been paying attention to her driving. She didn’t see the two vehicles stopped in her path.

I wasn’t seriously injured, though I wound up with some soreness in my neck, back, and ribs. Thanks to my last-minute jamming of the brakes, I only tapped the Subaru in front of me--which was a damn good thing, because the mother behind its wheel had her baby in the back seat; neither of them was hurt, either. The Saab took the brunt of that morning’s violence. And performed heroically. After looking over the photos from that crash, my brother, who’s spent years dealing in cars, said the Saab absorbed the blow exactly as it had been designed to do, and that if I’d been in a smaller, less sturdy automobile, I would have wound up either in a hospital ward or under a gravestone.

Unfortunately, my beloved car--the one on which I’ve lavished so much care and affection over the years, and which I thought I would have for a decade to come--won’t be returning home. My insurance company has declared it totaled, estimating the cost of putting it back on the road at $12,000, more than its present market value.

I’m heartbroken. I loved that car, which my wife and I had come to call, affectionately, “The Roadster.” I was proud every moment I was driving it. I’ve never found such enjoyment in a car as I did in the Saab. It gave us almost no trouble over the years, and I tried to pay it back for its reliability by keeping it in top condition. But I couldn’t stop a negligent young woman from damaging it beyond repair.

Perhaps the only hopeful thing that’s come out of all this horror is that my mechanic, who has worked on the Saab ever since I bought it and knows what excellent shape it was in, purchased it from my insurance company at a good price, with the intention of dismantling it for parts to use in other older vehicles. In other words, my beautiful little car’s legacy is to help keep its fellow Saabs up and running and protecting other drivers who depend on their strength as much as I did on my car last week.

Only in that respect might its sacrifice be thought worthwhile.

Thank you, old friend, I won’t forget you.

READ MORE:Close Shave Indeed,” by Byron Rice (Notes from the Flatlands ...).

“Unearthing One Inconsistency After Another”

Last weekend I pointed readers toward Adam Graham’s list of his 10 favorite Columbo episodes, which he presented at the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio site. But Graham isn’t the only one who’s offered up such a best-hits post. Tipping My Fedora blogger “Cavershamragu” has put together his (her?) own rundown of picks from Columbo’s 69 feature-length installments. Terrific choices, all.

Not Such a Great Deal

Why you might not wish to invest in an e-book reader.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Cat’s Out of the Bag

Janet Rudolph today released the names of nominees for this year’s Macavity Awards. The winners will be chosen by members of Mystery Readers International and announced during this coming September’s Bouchercon in St. Louis. As Rudolph notes, “This award is named for the ‘mystery cat’ of T.S. Eliot (Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats).”

Now on to the names of this year
s contenders ...

Best Mystery Novel:
The Glass Rainbow, by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster)
Faithful Place, by Tana French (Viking)
The Queen of Patpong, by Timothy Hallinan (Morrow)
Thirteen Hours, by Deon Meyer (Grove Atlantic)
Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Scent of Rain and Lightning, by Nancy Pickard (Ballantine)

Best First Mystery Novel:
The Damage Done, by Hilary Davidson (Forge)
Rogue Island, by Bruce DeSilva (Forge)
The Poacher’s Son, by Paul Doiron (Minotaur)
Full Mortality, by Sasscer Hill (Wildside)
A Thousand Cuts, by Simon Lelic (Viking)

Best Mystery-Related Non-fiction:
The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum (Penguin)
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making, by John Curran (HarperCollins)
Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction, edited by Maxim Jakubowski (New Holland)
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, by Yunte Huang (Norton)
Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell and Hank W. Wagner (Oceanview Publishing)

Best Mystery Short Story:
• “The Scent of Lilacs,” by Doug Allyn (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine [EQMM], September/October 2010)
• “Swing Shift,” by Dana Cameron (from Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris; Berkley)
• “Devil’s Pocket,” by Keith Gilman (from Philadelphia Noir, edited by Carlin Romano; Akashic)
• “The Gods for Vengeance Cry,” by Richard Helms (EQMM,
November 2010)
• “Bookworm,” by G.M. Malliet (from Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin’, edited by Donna Andrews, Barb Goffman, and Marcia Talley; Wildside)

Sue Feder Memorial Historical Mystery:
A Marked Man, by Barbara Hamilton (Berkley)
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
(Random House)
City of Dragons, by Kelli Stanley (Minotaur)
The Red Door, by Charles Todd (Morrow)
The Fifth Servant, by Kenneth Wishnia (HarperCollins)

No Simple Scheme

My piece about the near impossibility (at least for me) of putting together must-read lists of crime fiction appears this morning at the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Check it out when you have time.

Blockbuster in the Making

Tony Buchsbaum has reviewed The Hypnotist, by the pseudonymous “Lars Kepler,” in January Magazine.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Crime Among the Kiwis

New Zealand journalist and book critic Craig Sisterson has announced the longlist of nominees for the second annual Ngaio Marsh Award. This commendation is presented to the crime, mystery, or thriller novel that a panel of local and international judges believes was the best one written by a New Zealand citizen or resident, and published in the previous year. Contenders for the 2011 prize are:

Slaughter Falls, by Alix Bosco
Blood Men, by Paul Cleave
Captured, by Neil Cross
Death in the Kingdom, by Andrew Grant
Surrender, by Donna Malane
The Crime of Huey Dunstan, by James McNeish
Hunting Blind, by Paddy Richardson
The Fallen, by Ben Sanders

A shortlist of finalists will be broadcast on August 1. On August 21, the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award will be presented as part of the Christchurch Arts Festival. Also on hand for that event will be best-selling writers Tess Gerritsen and John Hart.

For more information about this award, check Sisterson’s blog, Crime Watch, and the Ngaio Marsh Award Facebook page.

Last year’s Ngaio Marsh Award winner was Alix Bosco.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Oh, Just One Last Thing ...

Yesterday on this page, I posted a May 1973 article from TV Guide about Columbo star Peter Falk’s growing-up years in New York state. As a follow-up, today I’m offering what I believe is the last of the Falk/Columbo stories in my collection of old TV Guides. This piece from the August 14, 1976, edition looks back at the actor’s stubborn insistence on being paid more and having the opportunity to direct as well as act, if he was to continue playing the beloved, quirky Los Angeles police lieutenant--demands that drove his NBC-TV bosses to “screaming fights.”

Click on the images below for readable enlargements.

If you still haven’t overdosed on Columbo nostalgia, click here to find author Mark Billingham’s 2007 Rap Sheet essay about his work on a BBC 4 Radio documentary about that NBC Mystery Movie segment. Included with the piece is the documentary itself in three segments.

Also worth checking out: TV Confidential’s tribute to Falk’s career; BBC News’ report on Falk’s death last week, which includes quotes from Columbo co-creator William Link; Adam Graham’s picks, found at the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio site, of his 10 favorite Columbo episodes; and Detection by Moonlight’s examination of the final Columbo episode, 2003’s “Columbo Likes the Nightlife.”

Chew on This

This entry from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac is definitely off-topic, but I found it fascinating:
On this day in 1974, the first Universal Product Code was scanned at a supermarket cash register. The UPC bar code system was originally invented specifically for grocery stores, to speed check-out and help them keep better track of their inventory, but it proved so successful that it spread quickly to other retailers. The first patent for a bar code went to N. Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver in 1952. They didn’t do anything with it for 20 years, because the scanning technology didn’t exist yet. By 1972, Woodland was working for IBM, and it was there that the bar code design was perfected and the prototype scanner was built in 1973. The IBM 3660 included a digital cash register and checkout scanner, and the grocery industry, which had been collaborating with IBM on the invention, began requiring its suppliers to start putting bar codes on their packaging.

The first scan was made at a Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, Ohio, which had agreed to serve as a test facility for the new technology, and the first item scanned was a pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum. There’s no significance to gum being the first item scanned; it just happened to be the first thing pulled from the cart. That pack of gum is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
That must be one dry 10-stick pack of gum by now.

Ain’t It the Low-down Dirty Truth

In a delightful essay for the Web site Criminal Element, Dr. Lewis Preschel recalls how the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler affected the English language.

Yet Another Sad Passing

I’m sorry to hear that 84-year-old Canadian author and poet Robert Kroetsch died in a car crash in Alberta last week. I had the memorable opportunity, way back in 1999, to interview Kroetsch about his then new Klondike gold rush novel, The Man from the Creeks.

(Hat tip to January Magazine.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pride of the Ossiningites

Three times before I have scanned and posted here TV Guide articles about the renowned American crime drama Columbo and its star, Peter Falk. But since Falk’s death on Thursday, I’ve dug out from my files two more pieces from the same magazine that haven’t yet been offered on this page. (Columbo’s viewer popularity made it a frequent attraction in TV Guide during the series’ long run.) For your entertainment and edification, I shall post both of those articles this weekend.

The first piece, embedded below, appeared in the May 5, 1973, edition. It looks back fondly at Falk’s boyhood years spent in Ossining, New York, a village in Westchester County, north of New York City.

Simply click on the images below for readable enlargements.

Has It Really Been That Long?

It was two years ago today that onetime Charlie’s Angels co-star Farrah Fawcett died as a result of anal cancer at age 62.

Don’t Forget

The fourth season of that stylish crime series, Leverage, starring Timothy Hutton, begins tomorrow night at 9 p.m. ET/PT on TNT-TV.

Greenberg’s Work Is Done Here

This has certainly not been a good week for the mystery-fiction community. First we saw Columbo star Peter Falk go to that great crime scene in the sky. Now comes the announcement that editor and anthologist Martin H. Greenberg has passed away at age 70. His friend and colleague, Ed Gorman, reports that “Marty died peacefully this afternoon in his sleep at home in Green Bay, Wisconsin.”

A political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Greenberg worked over the years not only with Gorman but also with Isaac Asimov, Jon L. Lellenberg, Bill Pronzini, and others to produce short-story collections such as Holmes for the Holidays (1998), The Big Book of Noir (1998), Purr-Fect Crime (1997), and Murder Most Irish (1996).

Bill Crider shares his thoughts online about Greenberg’s demise, as do Max Allan Collins and Russell Davis.

POSTSCRIPT: Jiro Kimura of The Gumshoe Site offers some additional information about Greenberg and his career, which I think is worth noting. He was “called ‘the king of anthologies,’ editing, singularly and collaboratively, too many anthologies in the science-fiction, mystery, military, and romance genres to list them all here,” Kimura writes. “He co-edited Stalkers (ROC, 1990; with Ed Gorman), 14 Vicious Valentines (Avon, 1988; with Isaac Asimov, etc.), The Mammoth Book of Private Eye Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1988; with Bill Pronzini) among others. He received the 1995 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America, and The Tony Hillerman Companion (HarperCollins, 1994; edited singularly) and The Fine Art of Murder (Carroll & Graf, 1993; co-edited by Jon L. Breen, Ed Gorman, and Larry Segriff) were Edgar-nominated in the critical/biographical category.” He adds that Greenberg’s death came “after a long battle with cancer.”

READ MORE:Marty Greenberg Obit,” by Mike Stotter
(Shotsmag Confidential).

Friday, June 24, 2011

Good-bye, Columbo

Yes, I know American actor Peter Falk--who died Thursday night at age 83--did many other things before starring in the long-running TV series Columbo. To quote from The New York Times’ obituary, he had “a wide-ranging career in comedy and drama, in the movies and onstage ... He was nominated for two Oscars; appeared in original stage productions of works by Paddy Chayefsky, Neil Simon and Arthur Miller; worked with the directors Frank Capra, John Cassavetes, Blake Edwards and Mike Nichols; and co-starred with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis and Jason Robards.” (The International Movie Database [IMDb] offers a lengthy rundown of his credits).

However, like author Ed Lynskey, I shall always remember Falk best as rumpled but shrewd Los Angeles police detective Lieutenant Columbo (no official first name), a role in which he first appeared 43 years ago. Along with McCloud and McMillan & Wife, Columbo--created by William Link and Richard Levinson--became a bedrock element of the 1970s “wheel series,” the NBC Mystery Movie. And Falk quickly established his protagonist as “Joe Everyman,” according to Link--a cop who didn’t exhibit the investigative pretensions of many classic fictional sleuths, but in fact had no shortage of wits. “[H]e’s got a brain like a computer, although he hides it,” Link says. “And that’s the way he sucks these murderers in. ... He doesn’t seem like the brightest guy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer; he’s always talking about his wife and relatives. So [the murderers] give him leeway. But he’s just conning them there before he goes in for the kill.”

Writing earlier today on The Wall Street Journal’s Web site, author Lee Goldberg captured Columbo’s appeal nicely:
Yes, Columbo was brilliant, as outrageously so as Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. But thanks to Falk’s humanity and humor, his pitch-perfect performance and shrewd choices, he made Columbo more than a character to us and much more than a collection of colorful quirks. He made him a living, breathing person.

With his hang-dog looks, driving up in his wretched car (personally selected by Falk from the Universal Studios motor pool), schlepping into the crime scene in his wrinkled overcoat (pulled from Falk’s own closet), looking at everything with his one, good eye while chewing on a cigar stub, Columbo was immediately relatable to us, to people the world over, in a way that no TV cop had ever been before ... or has been since. We’d all met guys like him. Many of us were guys like him. ...

In every story, Falk’s Columbo showed us what a grave mistake it was to judge a person by how they dressed, the car they drove, or how much education they had. Every time he brought down one of those rich, highly educated, supremely self-confident, outrageously good-looking murderers, he not only chipped away at our ridiculous notions of what makes a hero, he offered us escape in an entirely different way. Falk made us believe, through his deceptively simple performance, that we didn’t have to be rich, well-dressed, or have an Ivy League education to be the smartest person in the room ... nor did we have to be physically perfect, and the consummate tough guy, to be a man.

We just had to be true to ourselves.
I’ve written many times on this page about Columbo and Falk and the series’ development, because that show and character meant a great deal to me when I was growing up. The NBC Mystery Movie first got me interested in crime fiction, and I have been a loyal fan ever since. I own all of the regular Columbo episodes on DVD (though not the subsequent teleflicks), and I was thrilled last year at the chance to interview William Link about that show and his collection of Columbo short stories. To me and many others, I suspect, Falk’s Columbo--with his cigars, his wont to ask “just one more question,” his battered Peugeot, his unseen but evidently extensive family, his lethargic basset hound, and his stealthy genius--became more than a familiar figure; he became a friend. And the news that Falk, and with him the lieutenant, has died comes as a shocking event. Even though, with the actor’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease, we all knew he couldn’t be long for this world.

As a small way of paying tribute to Columbo, I’ve gathered here some videos--samplings of an acting career well spent, and a series destined to live on well past the hour of Falk’s funeral. They don’t fill the gap of Falk’s absence. But they remind us why that absence seems momentous.

A preview of the Columbo series on DVD:

Jamie Lee Curtis made her TV debut playing a waitress in this 1977 episode, “Try and Catch Me”:

Columbo with John Cassavetes in 1972’s “Étude in Black”:

Columbo with Robert Conrad in 1974’s “An Exercise in Fatality”:

Columbo’s less-than-elegant descent of a canyon crime scene:

Peter Falk, in character, takes part in a 1977 Dean Martin roast:

READ MORE:Peter Falk, 1927-2011,” by Andrew O’Hehir (Salon); “Remembering Peter Falk: His 10 Best Movies,” by Gary Susman (The Moviefone Blog).

Neato Keene-o

Independent reprint publisher Stark House Press’ latest news release spotlights its upcoming distribution of an omnibus containing three novels by Day Keene (né Gunard Hjertstedt, 1903-1969): Dead Dolls Don’t Talk, Hunt the Killer, and Too Hot to Hold. Speaking as somebody who is woefully under-read in Keene’s crime fiction, I very much look forward to getting my hands on this volume.

Peter Falk Is Gone. Long Live Peter Falk!

I’ll have more to say this afternoon about the Columbo star’s death, but for now, here are the basics, courtesy of the Associated Press:
Peter Falk, the stage and movie actor who became identified as the squinty, rumpled detective in Columbo, which spanned 30 years in prime-time television and established one of the most iconic characters in movie police work, has died. He was 83.

Falk died Thursday in his Beverly Hills home, according to a statement released Friday by family friend Larry Larson.
READ MORE:Peter Falk, TV’s Columbo, Dead at 83,” by Greg Braxton (Los Angeles Times).

Riches from Yesteryear

Another week brings another brilliant collection of “forgotten books” posts. The latest recommendations include these works of crime and mystery fiction: Death of a Lake, by Arthur W. Upfield; Bury Me Deep, by Harold Q. Masur; The Murder at Crome House, by G.D.H. and Margaret Cole; Swan Dive, by Jeremiah Healy; Death of a Dutchman, by Magdalen Nabb; Death of a Fantasy Life, by T.G. Gilpin; Big Man, by Richard Marsten (aka Ed McBain); Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; The Benevent Treasure, by Patricia Wentworth; Tales of Zorro, edited by Richard Dean Starr; and “a forgotten book about forgotten books,” Double Trouble: A Bibliographic Chronicle of ACE Mystery Doubles. Oh, and don’t miss reading “A Man Couldn’t Breathe,” a long-forgotten short story by David Goodis, published originally in Detective Fiction Weekly.

Patti Abbott features a full list of today’s series contributors in her own blog, plus a couple more suggestions of neglected books to discover.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Newton Thornburg Has Passed Away

I was sorry to read in The Guardian that American novelist Newton Thornburg, the author most prominently of Cutter and Bone (1976), died in early May at age 81. He’d evidently been paralyzed by a stroke back in 1998 and had been left wheelchair-bound, living in a retirement home near Seattle ever since. Sadly, Thornburg’s passing seems to have generated little public notice.

If you haven’t already read it, check out Bob Cornwell’s interview with Thornburg, which appeared at the Tangled Web site a few years ago.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Bullet Points: Summer at Last Edition

Yes, that’s me (in the lower right-hand corner) seated outside Minneapolis’ Target Field, waiting to see the Minnesota Twins beat the Chicago White Sox, 1-0. (Photo by Byron Rice.)

I spent last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visiting my best friend from college. Although the days were rather hot (thanks to high humidity), we found enough energy to drop in on the Raven Award-winning Once Upon a Crime bookshop, dig up some long-out-of-print works at Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore, sample--more than once--the ice-cream offerings at Sebastian Joe’s, get tickets to a Twins game in the city’s still new outdoor ballpark, and rack up some serious back-patio reading time at my friend’s house. I tried not to think about blogging at all. But now that I’ve returned, I find the need to catch up with what’s been happening the crime-fiction world. Here are some links of interest:

• The USA Network crime drama Burn Notice will commence its fifth-season run tomorrow night at 9 p.m. ET/PT. AOL TV (formerly TV Squad) catches viewers up on the series thus far, while Omnimystery News offers a preview of the fifth-season opener.

This is good news: “ announced today that its publishing division, more specifically its mystery and suspense imprint Thomas & Mercer, has acquired the publication rights to the 35 titles in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain, a pen name used by Evan Hunter. ... The first books will be published this fall in print, digital, and audio formats. In addition, 12 titles from the author’s Matthew Hope series will also be published, starting next year.”

• More Thomas & Mercer news, this time from Max Allan Collins:
Award-winning author Max Allan Collins’ Chicago Lightning: The Collected Nathan Heller Short Stories, to be published by Thomas & Mercer on October 4, features Chicago P.I. Nathan Heller as the narrator of thirteen crime stories based on real cases from the 1930s and 1940s. Known for his graphic novel, Road to Perdition, the basis of the Academy Award-winning film starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, Max Allan Collins is a recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America lifetime achievement award, the Eye, and is the writer and director of five feature films and two documentaries. Leading up to the publication of Chicago Lightning, AmazonEncore will re-release twelve other Nathan Heller books in August.
• John Lutz’s early Alo Nudger private-eye novels are finally being brought back into print. They’re also available as e-books.

• An addition to our blogroll: Weekly Lizard, a news and features site produced by publisher Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. More here.

• Talk about forgotten books, how many readers remember 1936’s President Fu Manchu, by Sax Rohmer? (Hat tip to Elizabeth Foxwell.)

Alfred Hitchcock on the difference between mystery and suspense. (Hat tip to Harry Shannon via Facebook.)

• Congratulations to Spinetingler Magazine for launching Snubnose Press, an independent publisher of crime-fiction e-books. Its debut release is an anthology, Speed Loader, now available via Smashwords.

• A couple more top-notch British thrillers being brought back into print by Ostara Publishing: Rogue Male, by Geoffrey Household, and Funeral Sites, by Jessica Man.

• After California novelist Keith Raffel wrote, in The Rap Sheet, about his new e-book thriller, Drop By Drop, he was interviewed on the same subject by the San Jose Mercury-News. You’ll find that piece here.

• Writer, director, and producer Robert Foster, whose TV credits included Knight Rider, Chicago Story, Kojak, The Mod Squad, and Run for Your Life, died on May 30 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. Cause of death was brain cancer. Foster was 72 years old. (Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

• Classic Film and TV Café celebrates Kolchak: The Night Stalker ... and 77 Sunset Strip ... and, by the way, Murder, She Wrote.

• For Criminal Intent, Jake Hinkson names his five favorite classic heist films. One of them is The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

• Crime Watch’s Craig Sisterson reports that “the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, and by extension, New Zealand crime fiction in general, now has an official Facebook presence.” Just so you know ...

• Everybody seems to agree that the non-conclusive finale to AMC-TV’s much-heralded police drama, The Killing, was a major disappointment. It might be harder for AMC to draw viewers in for a second season.

• After an extremely extended hiatus, Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards have re-launched their Web site, “In addition to the site features you’ve always loved,” they explain, “you’ll now find simple, hyperlinked lists to all past episodes of our podcasts ... We’ve also captured and archived lots of press and testimonials about our podcasts, and have created an expanded list of our many friends in the blogosphere that provides a handy reference for all who love film noir and hard-boiled literature.” Welcome back, guys!

• Barbara Fister recaps (in some detail) the recent Stieg Larsson and Scandinavian Crime Fiction symposium held at the University of California, Los Angeles. Part I can be enjoyed here. Part II is here.

• And keep an eye out this coming Friday for “A Man Couldn’t Breathe,” a much-forgotten short story written by David Goodis (under the pseudonym David Crewe) and published originally in the April 6, 1935, issue of Detective Fiction Weekly. Evan Lewis of Davy Crockett’s Almanack will post scans of the story here on Friday morning.

Hail the Bowlers and Cat Suits!

The actual 50th anniversary of the broadcast debut of The Avengers, that cultish, 1960s British TV spy series, was back in January. But this coming weekend fans will gather in Chichester, England, for a special anniversary celebration. “Every aspect of the show will be covered in panels, interviews, concerts, and live commentary,” reports Spy Vibe. The program schedule can be found here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Trouble Follows Him

For the Kirkus Reviews Web site today, I write about a recently “rediscovered read”: Calamity Town (1942), one of the finest entries in the classic Ellery Queen mystery series. After you finish that post, please use the Comments section at the bottom of the page to suggest other Queen novels you think would also be worth reading again.

READ MORE:Forgotten Book -- Calamity Town,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’).

Monday, June 20, 2011

More Than the Usual Suspects

My mention here last week that I’d just completed a year’s worth of work on a crime-fiction encyclopedia project caused a number of Rap Sheet readers to ask for more information regarding that venture.

As I’ve written previously, the book is called 100 American Crime Writers and is being edited by Steven Powell, who’s also the author of another forthcoming work, Conversations with James Ellroy. 100 American Crime Writers will be brought out by British publisher Palgrave Macmillan, along with a companion book, 100 British Crime Writers, edited by Esme Miskimmin. There’s no scheduled release date yet, but Powell tells me that the manuscript is due this coming December. Given the glacial pace of academic publishing, 100 American Crime Writers might find its way to bookstores in late 2012, or some time in 2013.

Entries in this encyclopedia range from 500 words in length to 2,500 words, and have been broken up among a variety of contributors. I wrote seven of the author biographies. Below is a complete, alphabetized list of the entries, with my seven in boldface type:

1. Megan Abbott
2. Paul Auster
3. W.T. Ballard
4. Ann Bannon
5. Robert Bloch
6. Lawrence Block
7. Leigh Brackett
8. Gil Brewer
9. Fredric Brown
10. Howard Browne
11. Edward Bunker
12. James Lee Burke
13. W.R. Burnett
14. James M. Cain
15. Paul Cain
16. Truman Capote
17. John Dickson Carr
18. Vera Caspary
19. Raymond Chandler
20. Harlan Coben
21. Max Allan Collins
22. Richard Condon
23. Michael Connelly
24. Patricia Cornwell
25. Robert Crais
26. James Crumley
27. Carroll John Daly
28. Norbert Davis
29. Mignon G. Eberhardt
30. James Ellroy
31. Janet Evanovich
32. William Faulkner
33. Kenneth Fearing
34. Rudolph Fisher
35. Kinky Friedman
36. Jacques Futrelle
37. Erle Stanley Gardner
38. William Campbell Gault
39. David Goodis
40. Sue Grafton
41. Davis Grubb
42. Frank Gruber
43. Dashiell Hammett
44. Thomas Harris
45. Carl Hiaasen
46. Patricia Highsmith
47. George V. Higgins
48. Tony Hillerman
49. Chester Himes
50. Dorothy B. Hughes
51. Roy Huggins
52. Day Keane
53. Jonathan Kellerman
54. C. Daly King
55. Jonathan Latimer
56. Dennis Lehane
57. Elmore Leonard
58. Ira Levin
59. Elizabeth Linnington
60. Eleazar Lipsky
61. John Lutz
62. Ed McBain
63. Horace McCoy
64. William P. McGivern
65. John D. MacDonald
66. Ross Macdonald
67. Dan J. Marlowe
68. Margaret Millar
69. Walter Mosley
70. Marcia Muller
71. Frederick Nebel
72. Barbara Neely
73. William F. Nolan
74. Sara Paretsky
75. Robert B. Parker
76. George Pelecanos
77. Edgar Allan Poe
78. Melville Davisson Post
79. Richard S. Prather
80. Bill Pronzini
81. Ellery Queen (aka Frederick Dannay and Manfred B. Lee)
82. Arthur B. Reeve
83. Mary Roberts Rinehart
84. James Sallis
85. George S. Schuyler
86. Viola Brothers Shore
87. Iceberg Slim
88. Mickey Spillane
89. Rex Stout
90. Jim Thompson
91. Ernest Tidyman
92. Lawrence Treat
93. Joseph Wambaugh
94. Carolyn Wells
95. Donald E. Westlake
96. Raoul Whitfield
97. Charles Willeford
98. Charles Williams
99. Cornell Woolrich
100. Willard Huntington Wright (aka S.S. Van Dine)

“As I’m sure you’re aware,” writes Powell, “the hardest part about doing an anthology like this is to keep the number of authors down to 100. I’ve tried to represent a wide range of subgenres and time periods, but it is always going to disappoint some people that some names have to be excluded.” Indeed, had I been in charge, I might have dropped a few novelists--such as Truman Capote and William Faulker--who are better known for their work outside the crime-fiction realm. I might also have left out Roy Huggins, who, despite having penned a rather winning 1946 novel called The Double Take, was considerably more prominent as a TV writer and producer. And I’d have fought to fit in wordsmiths such as Thomas B. Dewey, Brett Halliday (aka Davis Dresser), Stuart M. Kaminsky, Stanley Ellin, Arthur Lyons, Martin Cruz Smith, Joseph Hansen, Linda Barnes, John Shannon, David Dodge, Robert J. Randisi, and Earl Derr Biggers. Of course, by the time I was done trying to include everybody I thought belonged into this encyclopedia, I might have had to change its title to 150 American Crime Writers.

I shall keep Rap Sheet readers apprised of the progress of this book, as it approaches its pub date. But you can also look for updates in editor Powell’s own fine blog, The Venetian Vase.

Coming on the heels of last year’s Following the Detectives: Real Locations in Crime Fiction, to which I also contributed, working on 100 American Crime Writers was not only a welcome opportunity, but a most satisfying experience, as it invited me to read or re-read stories by all of the authors I was profiling. I hope to take advantage of other such opportunities in the near future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trying on Gumshoes

After delivering a solid hit with his recent compilation of the top 100 mystery books, the writer who alternately signs himself “Cavershamragu” and “Sergio” has proposed a list of the top 20 private eye movies in Tipping My Fedora. Said rundown includes--in the order of their theatrical release--The Thin Man (1934), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Harper (1966), The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), and Twilight (1998).

Although I’ve never seen three of Sergio’s recommendations--Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Night Moves (1975), and Brick (2005)--I agree that the rest are winners.

Two pictures I’d have found places for, had I put such a catalogue together myself, would have been Marlowe, the 1969 James Garner flick in which he played Raymond Chandler’s most famous protagonist, and P.J., the 1968 movie featuring George Peppard as a congenitally down-and-out gumshoe trying to protect a millionaire’s curvaceous mistress. But since I didn’t go to the effort of assembling this list, I can hardly complain that my opinion wasn’t taken into account.

READ MORE:Max Allan Collins’ 15 Best Private Eye Movies”; “Dick Lochte’s Top 20 Private Eye Movies,” by Nicolas Pillai (Squeezegut Alley); “Best Detective Movies,” by Edward Piercy (Pat Maginess: Private Eye).

From Last to First

Tonight brings the 13th and final episode of The Killing, AMC-TV’s English-language adaptation of a much-heralded Danish crime drama. Although the series has been inconsistent in quality (my opinion, anyway), having watched it this far in, I don’t think I can resist finding out--finally!--who was responsible for young Rosie Larsen’s murder. If you need to catch up on any episodes, check the AMC Web site.

The series conclusion begins at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

As Omnimystery News reminds us, this evening will also offer “Three Act Tragedy,” the first in a trio of new Hercule Poirot stories on PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! That 90-minute episode will begin at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Wet and Winning

Five--no, make that six--winners were declared earlier this morning in the third annual Watery Grave Invitational Short Story Contest, organized by The Drowning Machine. From a field of 19 writers, here are the victorious short stories and their authors:

1st Prize:Run for the Roses,” by Chris La Tray ($50)

2nd Prize:Fingerprints,” by Eric Beetner ($35)

3rd Prize:A Pocket Full of Horses,” by Chad Eagleton ($20)

4th Place:Hard Times,” by Ian Ayris (a bye into the next WGI)

5th Place: Tie -- “A Game of Hide and Seek,” by Patricia Abbott, and “Too Much Too Young,” by Nigel Bird (byes into the next WGI)

The Drowning Machine’s Naomi Johnson says she’ll post the top three stories as the day goes on. We’ll add links here as those tales appear.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Backstage with Diamond

My review of Peter Lovesey’s new novel, Stagestruck, appears today on the Kirkus Reviews Web site. Look for it here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Some Much-Needed Time Off

Having just completed a year-long crime-fiction encyclopedia project, I have decided to put The Rap Sheet at half-speed for the next week. Postings will continue, but expect fewer of them than usual. The blog should return to its regular schedule beginning on Monday, June 20.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Too Loyal Followers?

Today the blog Pop Culture Nerd announced the winners of its inaugural Stalker Awards, “given to crime fiction books and authors readers are obsessed with, voted on by genre fans at large.”

Favorite Novel: The First Rule, by Robert Crais (36% of votes)

Favorite Lead Character: Joe Pike from The First Rule (38%)

Favorite Supporting Character: Elvis Cole from The First Rule (47%)

Best Opening Sentence: “The night they were hijacked, Roxy Palmer and her husband, Joe, ate dinner with an African cannibal and his Ukrainian whore.” -- Wake Up Dead, by Roger Smith (37%)

Most Memorable Dialogue: Savages, by Don Winslow (39%)

Best Title: Hello Kitty Must Die, by Angela S. Choi (44%)

Most Eye-Catching Cover: Expiration Date, by Duane Swierczynski (43%)

Favorite Author on Social Media -- Tie: Hilary Davidson and Duane Swierczynski, both with 27% of the votes

Most Underrated Author: Charlie Huston (41%)

A complete list of the nominees can be found here.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Jim Dandy

I likely won’t be the only Rap Sheet reader looking forward to the November release of The Garner Files (Simon & Schuster), actor James Garner’s memoir. We finally have a cover image and description:
Told in the charming and self-deprecating style that has made him one of America’s most beloved actors, here is the real story behind Hollywood legend James Garner--from his Depression-era childhood to his colorful star-studded career.

One of Hollywood’s great leading men, James Garner boasts a career that spans six decades on television and the silver screen. Whether known as Bret Maverick, Jim Rockford, or Noah Calhoun, Garner’s appeal transcends generations. Now, at last, he shares the extraordinary truth behind his rags-to-riches story.

After suffering physical abuse at the hands of his stepmother, Garner left home at fourteen. He became Oklahoma’s first draftee of the Korean War and was honored with two Purple Hearts before returning to the United States and settling in Los Angeles to become an actor. Working alongside some of the most renowned celebrities, including Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando, and Clint Eastwood, Garner became a star in his own right, despite struggles with stage fright and depression. In
The Garner Files, this revered actor and quintessential self-made man recalls “trying to decipher” Audrey Hepburn, breaking Doris Day’s ribs, having a “heart-to-heart and eyeball-to-eyeball” with Steve McQueen, being “a card-carrying liberal--and proud of it,” and much more.

A page-turning blend of personal reflection and Hollywood glamour,
The Garner Files emerges as a compelling portrait of a household name as he navigates the turmoil and unpredictability of a life on screen.
A previous report on this book can be found here.

From Mad Libs to “McMillan”

Some sad news today from the Los Angeles Times:
Leonard Stern, an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director whose career in television spanned “The Honeymooners,” “Get Smart” and “McMillan & Wife” and whose additional career in publishing included co-creating the classic Mad Libs word game books, has died. He was 88.

Stern, a founding partner of the Price Stern Sloan publishing company, died Tuesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a 15-month illness, said his daughter-in-law, Laura Stern.
Funny, I was just watching an episode from the second season DVD set of McMillan & Wife and thinking about how much I’d enjoyed that NBC Mystery Movie series when it was first broadcast in the 1970s. Looking through his credits in the International Movie Database (IMDb), I see that Stern was also behind several other Mystery Movie segments: The Snoop Sisters, Faraday and Company, and Lanigan’s Rabbi. And he produced the Richard Widmark TV pilot, Brock’s Last Case. Amid all of those fine contributions, it’s easy to forget that he was also responsible for the abysmal Holmes & Yo-Yo.

My condolences go out to Stern’s family.

READ MORE:Leonard Stern, Get Smart Producer, Dies at 88
(The HMSS Weblog); “The Passings Parade,” by Ivan G. Shreve Jr. (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear).

Stout Contenders

The New York-based Nero Wolfe fan organization, The Wolfe Pack, today announced the finalists for its 2011 Nero Award, “presented each year to an author for the best mystery written in the tradition of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories.” The nominees are:

Ice Cold, by Tess Gerritsen (Ballantine)
The Book of Spies, by Gayle Lynds (St. Martin’s Press)
Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The Midnight Show Murders, by Al Roker and Dick Lochte (Delacorte)
Think of a Number, by John Verdon (Crown)

This prize will be presented during the Black Orchid Banquet, traditionally held on the first Saturday in December in New York City.

Previous winners and finalists are listed here.

From the “Would You Believe ...” File

This report comes from the Associated Press:
HOQUIAM, Wash. (AP) -- Police say a man was carrying a dead weasel when he burst into an apartment and assaulted a man in Washington state.

The victim asked, “Why are you carrying a weasel?” Police said the attacker answered, “It’s not a weasel, it’s a marten,” then punched him in the nose and fled.

The attacker was apparently looking for his girlfriend and had gone to her former boyfriend’s apartment Monday where the victim was a guest.
You’ll find more on this story here.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Bloody Doings End on Upbeat Note

Crime fiction in general and Canadian crime fiction in particular were the text and subtext of Bloody Words 2011, which concluded on Sunday in sunny Victoria, British Columbia.

Two and half full days of tightly focused and well-attended panels and a gala banquet were the highlights of this event held at Victoria’s four-star Hotel Grand Pacific. The hotel is located right next to the Parliament Buildings in BC’s capital city, which made quick scenic side-trips possible for the many attendees from the United States and more easterly parts of Canada.

During the banquet, locally based author Denise Dietz (Soap Bubbles, Strangle a Loaf of Italian Bread) did a fantastic job as master of ceremonies. An accomplished entertainer as well as award-winning author, Dietz introduced the evening’s speakers with a polished patter and even a few songs retooled with a crime-fiction audience in mind.

The Bony Pete Award for best short story by a registered attendee of Bloody Words was won by Jayne Barnard of Calgary, Alberta. The winning yarn will be published in Victoria’s Monday Magazine.

Guests of honor Tess Gerritsen and Michael Slade both offered up some inspiring and entertaining words, but it was Canadian literary icon William Deverell (Needles, Snow Job) who brought the house to its feet with his speech, after Bloody Words co-chairs Lou Allin and Kay Stewart presented him with a lifetime achievement award. “This would be the high point of my career,” Deverell told the banquet crowd.

Bloody Words 2012 will be held in Toronto, Ontario, from June 1 to 3. The Guest of Honour will be Linwood Barclay, while Gayle Lynds has been scheduled as International Guest of Honour, and author Rick Blechta will serve as MC. The 2012 conference will also introduce The Bloody Words Light Mystery Award, “for books that make you smile.”

An earlier report from Bloody Words can be found here.

Above, right: Denise Dietz at the lectern. She had the crowd laughing all night. Photo by Linda L. Richards.

Baring It All

An uncensored poster for the upcoming English-language film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been released. Needless to say, this probably won’t be displayed anywhere in the prudish United States.

Thrilling Kids to Death

I apparently missed spotting Booklist’s picks of 2011’s “Top 10 Crime Fiction for Youth.” (And shouldn’t that read “Top 10 Crime Novels for Youths”? Someone, I think, needs a copy editor.) But fortunately, Lynette Wong of the Omnivoracious blog turned me on to it. I don’t read young-adult fiction anymore, but as a boy, I probably would have enjoyed hearing about works such as these.

Good News for “Detroit 1-8-7” Fans

No, ABC-TV hasn’t decided, after all, to renew that 2010-2011 series. However, it looks as if anyone who missed seeing all of the episodes, or who wants to own this exceptional police drama in its entirety, will soon be able to buy Detroit 1-8-7: The Complete First Season on DVD. It’s scheduled for release at the end of August.

Private Eyes, Public Acclaim

The Private Eye Writers of America is now accepting submissions for its 2011 Shamus Awards competition. As the organization explains,
The categories are Best Hardcover P.I. novel, Best First P.I. novel, Best P.I. paperback original and Best P.I. short story. Eligible works must feature as a main character a person PAID for investigative work but NOT employed for that work by a unit of government. These include traditionally licensed private investigators, lawyers and reporters who do their own investigations, and others who function as hired private agents. These do NOT include law-enforcement officers, other government employees or amateur, uncompensated sleuths.

NOT eligible for consideration are self-published works, e-books or works for which the author is not paid. All submissions must be in hard copy.
To be eligible for judging, work must have been published for the first time in the United States during 2010. The deadline for submissions is July 1, 2011--less than a month away.

Winners will be announced during this fall’s Bouchercon in St. Louis.

Questions and requests for fuller guidelines should be sent to Shamus Awards chair Ted Fitzgerald at

Still More “Savages”

From Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy blog comes this very interesting item about a writer I’ve raved about before:
Mystery writer Don Winslow is getting an unexpected bonus out of Oliver Stone’s adaptation of his book “Savages,” about pot growers in Southern California getting in too deep.

First, the film begins shooting next month with the Oscar-winning director at the helm. With Stone comes a star-heavy cast, including John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Emile Hirsch, Salma Hayek, Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Benicio Del Toro.

So what’s the bonus? Winslow is now writing a prequel to “Savages,” an idea that came out of working with Stone and screenplay co-author Shane Salerno, Deadline Hollywood reports. Not coincidentally, the new prequel will be published by Simon & Schuster around the time of the film’s release in 2012.
You’ll find the whole post here.

* * *

Speaking of good thrillers, installment 36 of my serial novel, Forget About It: The First Al Zymer Senile Detective Mystery, has just gone up. An archive of previous chapters is here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

A Word-of-Mouth Sensation

Today marks 40 years since the release of Frederick Forsyth’s best-selling thriller, The Day of the Jackal. British author Charles Cumming offers background on that novel in The Guardian, while Ali Karim spotlights this anniversary in the blog Shotsmag Confidential.

Mr. Goldberg and the Monk Connection

Author Goldberg and Monk co-star Traylor Howard

My latest contribution to the Kirkus Reviews site is an interview with Southern California screenwriter-author Lee Goldberg, whose new novel, Mr. Monk on the Couch, is being released today from Obsidian/New American Library. It’s the 12th installment of his remarkably enjoyable tie-in book series featuring TV detective Adrian Monk. (I say “remarkably,” because while I don’t usually read tie-in novels, I find the Monk books delightful. And as mysteries, they’re rather more believable than some of the Monk TV episodes.) Goldberg is also the co-creator, with William Rabkin, of the recently launched Dead Man series of thrillers and the author of standalones such as The Man with the Iron-On Badge (2005), which was nominated for a Shamus Award.

You’ll find my post here.

* * *

Because of Kirkus’ article-length restrictions, it often happens that my interviews can’t be fully presented on that Web site. This was certainly the case with my Goldberg conversation. For Kirkus, we talked mostly about Mr. Monk on the Couch. However, we went on from there to discuss his decision to make the Monk books first-person tales, his hopes to write novels beyond the TV tie-ins, and some of the classic televised crime dramas he would have loved to write for, but didn’t.

To borrow a familiar line from old-time radio host Paul Harvey, below you will find “the rest of the story.”

J. Kingston Pierce: The Monk TV series and your work on these books overlapped by three years. During that time, how did you steer clear of conflicts between the stories you were writing and the small-screen episodes broadcast every Friday night?

Lee Goldberg: Some of that I was able to avoid by working very closely with Andy Breckman, the creator of the series. Although he never expected me to stick with the continuity of the TV series, we still tried pretty hard to, anyway. For the most part, we were able to avoid situations where the books conflicted with the TV show. I can only think of two examples where we ran into trouble.

I did a book called Mr. Monk Goes to Germany [2008] that involved [villain] Dale “the Whale” Biederbeck and the guy with six fingers on one hand [introduced in an episode titled “Mr. Monk Takes Manhattan”]. Shortly before the book came out, they broadcast an episode called “Mr. Monk Is on the Run” that also dealt with Dale the Whale and a guy with six fingers on one hand. Naturally, those elements conflicted with my story, but thankfully not in a big way.

The other instance was when I brought back Sharona [Fleming], Monk’s first assistant, in my fourth book, and first hardcover in the series, Mr. Monk and the Two Assistants [2007]. In the last season of the show, they decided to bring Sharona back and did it in a different way.

But now I don’t have to worry about any of those things. And [Breckman] called me shortly before the TV series ended and let me in on how things would wrap up in the final episode. He told me then that Monk was now in my hands and I should feel free to do whatever I wanted to with the character.

JKP: Breckman must, in fact, have been interested to see what innovations you could bring to the books that added to what he was already doing on television.

LG: He once told me that reading my Monk books was like a singer hearing his song covered by another artist. It’s his song, but it’s clearly been interpreted by somebody else. He recognizes his own work, but he’s also able to enjoy it on a different level. He paid me a great compliment by saying he really enjoys reading my books because he sees the character as his own and he likes where I’m taking him ... and is often pleasantly surprised by where he ends up.

JKP: You’ve said before that telling these stories from the first-person viewpoint of Monk’s assistant, Natalie Teeger (played on screen by Traylor Howard), rather than from a third-person perspective more similar to what we saw on television, “humanizes Monk.” Could you explain that further?

LG: [I]t’s allowed me to add an emotional resonance to the storylines that goes beyond just Monk’s eccentricities and the solving of puzzling mysteries. The underlying theme of the book (and yes, there always is one in each tale) is often reflected in whatever is happening in Natalie’s life. Her personal story frames the way in which she perceives the mystery and reacts to Monk, so it’s all of a piece. It’s allowed me to make her a deeper, more interesting, and more realistic character. By doing that, I ground the story in what I like to think of as “a necessary reality.”

Without that reality, Monk would just be a caricature and cartoon character. Natalie humanizes Monk and makes the world that the two of them live in believable to the reader. Through her, we are able to invest emotionally in the story. Without that crucial element, I believe the books would have failed.

JKP: Natalie really comes into her own as a detective in Mr. Monk on the Couch, taking on a case independent from Monk. Were you feeling the need to shake up their association a bit?

LG: If Natalie didn't grow as a character, and Monk didn’t, either, I think it would be really dull. More importantly I’d be bored writing the books. That said, I don’t want to veer too far away from their core characters. Just enough growth to make the books interesting, but not so much that they are radically different characters from who they were in my first book, Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse [2006], or in the last episode of the TV series.

JKP: Do you see cop-turned-police consultant Adrian Monk mostly as a caricature, or are there traits/quirks you share with this protagonist that help you to relate to him?

LG: The real danger with a character like Monk is treating him like a caricature. It would be so easy for him to become just another Maxwell Smart or Inspector Clouseau. But Andy did something brilliant in the pilot. He made Monk a sad, tragic character. The things we find so funny about him, the things that make him such a brilliant detective, all stem from enormous pain and loss, namely the murder of his wife.

He has a psychological disorder. It’s what makes him special, it’s what makes him funny, but it’s also what makes him real, if you do it right, if you balance all the eccentricities with enough tragedy and sentimentality. If that sounds self-conscious and premeditated, that’s because it is. I’m always careful when plotting these books, and creating the funny situations, to make sure that there’s always a real, emotional, and painful conflict at the center of it all that Monk and Natalie are grappling with. It’s that conflict that not only provokes the humor but that also keeps Monk grounded in reality. It’s what prevents him from becoming just a cartoon character.

I need you to care about him, to believe in him, because otherwise you won’t keep reading. Monk as a caricature would become hollow and boring very, very fast.

On a personal level, I need to care about Monk. I need to believe in him, or I couldn’t write these books. It’s not enough for me just to tell jokes and a clever mystery. I need to be invested in Monk and in the story that I’m telling. The books need to be about something. Nobody is ever going to mistake these books for great literature, but I want them to be able to stand on their own against the likes of Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Kinsey Millhone, and Spenser. I’m not saying I’m in their league--far from it--but these books won’t work if they’re just narrative cartoons.

JKP: Prior to penning the Monk books, you wrote eight tie-in novels to Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis: Murder series, beginning two years after that show ended in 2001 and concluding in 2007. Can you envision at least as long a lifespan for the post-TV series Monk books?

LG: In terms of number of books, Monk has already surpassed Diagnosis: Murder. There were eight Diagnosis: Murder books and there will be 15 [Monk novels] by the time I’m done with this current contract in May 2012.

JKP: While most of your novels have been spin-offs from television shows, you’ve written a few others of your own invention. Do you find both types of work equally satisfying? Or are you hoping to someday leave the tie-ins behind and work solely on your own stuff?

LG: I find the Diagnosis: Murder and Monk books very satisfying, because they weren’t just work-for-hire jobs for me. I was the executive producer and principal writer of the Diagnosis: Murder TV series for many years, so I felt a very strong, personal connection to the show and, later, to the books. I was a writer on the Monk TV series before I started writing the Monk books, so I have that same kind of personal connection.

That said, these aren’t characters I created. And while I feel an enormous affection for them, and protective of them, and in many ways they feel like my own, I don’t own them and I’m not getting the full value of my work. By that I mean, my percentage of the royalties is crap. It might be fun creatively, but it’s no way to make a living.

I do intend to leave tie-ins behind and concentrate solely on my own work. It’s hard for me to justify, creatively or financially, continuing with Monk when I am making so much in e-book royalties from backlist titles of my own that I self-published on the Kindle. That income wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t own those books. I don’t own Monk or Diagnosis: Murder. So with tie-ins, I am investing huge amounts of my time and talent in something that I will never see full value from. I am making a lot of money for other people, just not for myself. I’m writing two Monk books a year now, which doesn’t leave me much time to write books of my own.

So whether that means a clean break with Monk after my contract is up in May 2012, or a re-negotiated contract that gives me a higher royalty and only requires me to write one book a year, is yet to be seen.

JKP: As a screenwriter, you’ve concocted episodes not only of Diagnosis: Murder and Monk, but also The Glades, Spenser: For Hire, A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Martial Law, and Hunter. What crime drama(s), though, would you most like to have written for, but never did?

LG: Taking my own age out of the equation? Well, The Rockford Files and Harry O, of course. Also Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Remington Steele, The Saint, It Takes a Thief, The Sopranos, and Inspector Morse.

And I’d still love a shot at Justified.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Braun Is Gone

Sad news from Henderson, North Carolina’s Times-News:
Lilian Jackson Braun, whom The New York Times labeled “the new detective of the year” after the debut of her first The Cat Who ... novel in 1966, died Saturday at the Hospice House of the Carolina Foothills in Landrum, S.C. She was 97. ...

Braun's death was announced by her husband of 33 years, Earl Bettinger, to whom the author always referred in her book dedications as “The Husband Who.”

Braun died of natural causes. No services are planned.
You’ll find more information about Braun’s life and literary efforts here. Our condolences go out to her family.

(Hat tip to Steve Lewis of Mystery*File.)

There Can Be Value in Criticism

While finishing work on a good-sized encyclopedia entry about Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, I came across a story about his initial efforts as an author that I thought was fun and might encourage today’s young writers to keep plucking away at their work.

It seems that in the early 1920s, Gardner decided he wanted to do more than be a defense attorney all his adult life. So he set about trying to break into the pulp-fiction-writing market. He recognized right off the bat, however, that he was no natural-born author. “It was like I was trying to sign my name with my left hand,” Gardner later recalled. “I knew what I wanted to do, but for the life of me I couldn’t do it.” To protect his reputation, he submitted his stories to editors under a pseudonym, Charles M. Green.

As time went on, Gardner managed to peddle a couple of jokes to a newspaper, then sold a humorous skit involving a Frenchman and a hotel detective. But the first major work he saw published was a novelette called “The Shrieking Skeleton,” which he sent in 1923 to what was then a three-year-old pulp-fiction magazine called Black Mask. Its editors were distinctly unimpressed. In fact, they thought Gardner’s story was so bad, they forwarded it to the periodical’s too-serious circulation director as a gag, suggesting he plan a major promotional campaign around it. Predictably incensed, the circulation man responded with a note highlighting the narrative’s failings and begging for its rejection.

The editors subsequently returned Gardner’s manuscript with a refusal notice, but accidentally included the circulation director’s detailed criticism--which inspired the would-be wordsmith to rewrite his tale and resubmit it. Black Mask bought “The Shrieking Skeleton” the second time around, launching Gardner’s literary career.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bloody Interesting ... Bloody Fun!

The first-ever West Coast installment of the Bloody Words mystery convention is presently underway in Victoria, British Columbia. The Arthur Ellis Awards were handed ’round by the Crime Writers of Canada on Thursday night, but the conference itself didn’t get started until Friday.

At the tail end of a wet, cold spring, the sun came out and the conference hotel, situated on the waterfront in Victoria’s gorgeous Inner Harbour, felt transformed into a resort hotel. That resort atmosphere seemed to permeate the convention’s initial day, which culminated with two late-night events, both led by Canadian guest of honor, author Michael Slade. The first was a well-attended performance of Slade’s Shock Theatre, doing performances of two 1940s radio plays: Two Skeleton Key and Chicken Heart. Pictured above is the cast of Two Skeleton Key, with Slade at the microphone. To his left are International Guest of Honor Tess Gerritsen, author and Bloody Words co-chair Lou Allin, K.C. Dyer, and Ron Chudley.

Later still, Slade led those interested on a tour of Victoria’s ghostly highlights. Surprisingly well-attended considering the hour (the tour got stated around 11 p.m. and wound up back at the conference hotel around 1:30 a.m.), Slade led his group up and down the historic city’s side streets and back alleys, introducing them not only to the local haunts, but to some talented and sporting Bloody Words volunteers in ghostly garb, as well.

Today’s schedule includes a full day of panels, a mass autograph session, and a banquet this evening. The convention concludes of Sunday.

A beautiful, well-located and well-run convention.