Sunday, July 31, 2011

Raiding the Stockpile

• It was on this date 25 years ago that mystery fictionist Stanley Ellin--“one of the modern masters of the genre” (to quote the Books and Writers site)--died of a heart attack in his birthplace of Brooklyn, New York. He was 69 years old. A three-time Edgar Award winner, Ellin was the author of such novels as The Eighth Circle (1958) and Star Light, Star Bright (1979), as well as Mystery Stories (1956), which UK writer Julian Symons dubbed “the finest collection of stories in the crime form published in the past half century.” The Mystery Writers of America bestowed its esteemed Grand Master Award on Ellin in 1981.

• Tonight will bring the concluding installment of Zen, the three-episode British series broadcast under PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! umbrella. Titled “Ratking” and based on Michael Dibdin’s 1988 novel of the same name, this final 90-minute show is the best of the bunch, as far as I’m concerned--a fine blend of character development and complicated plotting, with some nice revenge thrown in to spice things up. “Ratking” is scheduled to begin this evening on PBS at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Click here to watch a preview.

• Mike Ripley’s new “Getting Away with Murder” column has just been posted in Shots. This month’s consignment of newsy bits and quips includes notes on fresh novels by Lee Child, Constance Briscoe, and Ian Morson; Barry Forshaw’s appropriation of a title “made famous back in 1980” by Robert Barnard--Death in a Cold Climate--for his own forthcoming book about Scandinavian crime fiction; and the first “History in the Court” event scheduled for September 29 in Cecil Court, London, the home of sponsor Goldsboro Books, and “aimed at historians, writers of historical fiction, and readers of both” (more details to come here).

• Daniela de Gregorio and Michael Jacob, the Italy-based authors who pen fine historical mysteries under the byline “Michael Gregorio,” report that “We have just been awarded the keys to the city of Spoleto in the form of something called The Lex Spoletina. It’s a replica of the Roman laws which once governed the city. The prize has been awarded this year to Michael Gregorio and Carlo Verdone, the Italian actor and film director.” Congratulations, Daniela and Mike!

• The paperback edition of Tony Black’s first Detective Inspector Rob Brennan novel, Truth Lies Bleeding, will be released this week. To promote it, Black put together a video trailer that features him reading from the book in a wonderfully Scottish-accented English that might take some concentration for Americans to comprehend.

Have you heard of the Vidocq Society?

• BBC America’s first new scripted series will be a crime drama, Coppers. Omnimystery News reports that it will “center on a young Irish cop assigned to the Five Points neighborhood of New York City in the 1860s. He must ‘navigate the unruly and sometimes violent currents of his immigrant neighborhood, while simultaneously interacting with uptown Manhattan high society and the emerging black community in Harlem.’” Coppers is expected to premiere in the summer of 2012.

• This week’s short-story offering in Beat to a Pulp comes from one of my fellow Anthony Award nominees, Hilary Davidson. Her tale is titled “The Other Man.”

• In the Murder Is Everywhere blog, Icelandic crime novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir shares some thoughts on the recent terrorist attacks in Norway by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. Meanwhile, The New Yorker recalls author Steig Larsson’s warnings about the rise of right-wing hate groups in Scandinavia and elsewhere.

• Spain’s Hammett Prize goes to Argentinean author Ricardo Piglia for his 2010 work, Blanco Nocturno (Nocturnal Target). Thanks to Jose Ignacio of The Game’s Afoot for this tip.

• Finally, J.F. “John” Norris has some very nice things to say about Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I, too, have picked up many out-of-print and vintage tomes over the years. Chiming in with more applause for independent bookstores is blogger Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Paring Down the Competition

Tonight brings an announcement from New Zealand of the finalists for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel. They are:

Blood Men, by Paul Cleave (Random House)
Captured, by Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster)
Hunting Blind, by Paddy Richardson (Penguin)
Slaughter Falls, by Alix Bosco (Penguin)

The longlist of eight nominees can be found here.

A news release, sent our way by journalist, book critic, and blogger Craig Sisterson, explains: “This year’s winner of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel will be announced at a ceremony at the conclusion of the ‘Setting the Stage for Murder’ event at the TelstraClear Club in North Hagley Park [in Christchurch, New Zealand] on the afternoon of Sunday 21 August 2011. New York Times bestselling international crime writers Tess Gerritsen and John Hart will also be appearing at the event. The winner will receive a distinctive handcrafted trophy designed and created by New Zealand sculptor and Unitec art lecturer Gina Ferguson, a set of Ngaio Marsh novels courtesy of HarperCollins, and a cheque for $1,000 provided by the Christchurch Writers Festival Trust.”

Congratulations to all four nominees!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bullet Points: Debt Ceiling Debacle Edition

• Nathanael Booth of the blog More Man than Philosopher just taught me something I didn’t know before: a 1989 episode of Murder, She Wrote, “The Grand Old Lady,” incorporated a previously unproduced script from the 1970s Jim Hutton series Ellery Queen. (Both Murder, She Wrote and Ellery Queen were of course created by Richard Levinson and William Link, who also gave us Columbo and Mannix.) “While watching it,” Booth writes, “I couldn’t help wishing that the script had been produced for the original [Ellery Queen] series run, since in many ways it’s the best episode of the lot. I don’t mean that in terms of the final reveal--which is half-hearted, at best--but in terms of complexity; nowhere else do we find a variation on the dying clue this sophisticated. And, beyond that, we’re treated to not simply one, but two false solutions. It’s a lovely piece of work.” Booth knows whereof he speaks: For months now, he’s been writing an episode-by-episode critique of Ellery Queen that’s well worth your checking out.

• Deadly Ink, the annual crime-fiction event scheduled to take place early next month in Parsippany, New Jersey, has been cancelled.

• Britain’s Independent has selected what its editors say are the “10 best spy novels” ever written. See if you agree with the choices.

• In the blog Criminal Element, Victoria Janssen celebrates Remington Steele, the 1982-1987 TV detective drama starring Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan. “Today,” Janssen writes, “it’s a real experience to re-watch the series and recognize so many of the guest stars: Dorothy Lamour, Sharon Stone, Delta Burke, Geena Davis. Not to mention everyone’s 1980s wardrobe and hair ... but the stories, and the central romantic relationship, still hold up.” In addition to Zimbalist’s captivating presence, one of my favorite elements of Remington Steele was its opening title sequence (a version of which is embedded above), with theme music by the great Henry Mancini.

• Part XXVII of “Black Lens,” the Ken Bruen and Russell Ackerman story rolling out in the Mulholland Books blog, was posted earlier today.

• This week also brings the release of Irish author Declan Burke’s Absolute Zero Cool, described as a postmodern take on the crime thriller. His publisher, Liberties Press (which also gave us Burke’s other recent book, Down These Green Streets: Irish Crime Writing in the 21st Century), describes this new novel’s plot thusly:
Adrift in the half-life limbo of an unpublished novel, hospital porter Billy needs to up the stakes. Euthanasia simply isn’t shocking anymore; would blowing up his hospital be enough to see Billy published, or be damned? What follows is a gripping tale that subverts the crime genre’s grand tradition of liberal sadism, a novel that both excites and disturbs in equal measure.
A number of noteworthy authors have nice things to say about the book, and Burke supplies some background to his story here. Although Absolute Zero Cool is currently out of stock at Amazon UK, Liberties Press should be able to satisfy purchasers.

R.I.P., G.D. Spradlin. A former lawyer and oil producer, the Oklahoma-born Spradlin served as his state’s director of the John F. Kennedy presidential campaign in 1960 before re-creating himself as an actor later in that decade. He went on to appear in Apocalypse Now and The Godfather: Part II, but was also a familiar presence in TV shows such as I Spy, Mannix, The Outsider, It Takes a Thief, Search, City of Angels, and Columbo. Spradlin was 90 years old.

• Also gone: Blaize Clement, who penned the Dixie Hemingway Cat Sitter Mysteries, including this year’s Cat Sitter Among the Pigeons.

• Last week I picked up on Seattle newspaper allegations that true-crime writer Ann Rule had been “sloppy” with her storytelling. But there was more to that story than I--or the paper’s editors--realized. Read the follow-ups here and here. (Hat tip to Craig Pittman.)

• The husband-and-wife authors who write historical mysteries as “Michael Gregorio” are holding a small contest to give away one signed and dated, pre-publication UK edition of their latest Hanno Stiffeniis mystery, Unholy Awakening, which is due out in paperback next month. Enter by August 1. Further contest rules are available here.

• “Can a vegetarian be tough? Strong? How about kick-ass?” muses Criminal Element’s Neliza Drew. Just ask Joe Pike, the ex-cop turned sidekick in Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole novels.

• I’m afraid I don’t recall the 1963-1967 TV series The Fugitive well enough to choose its five best episodes. But, apparently, Rick29 at the Classic Film and TV Café has a superior memory. Click here to see his top picks, and don’t miss the alternative suggestions made by TV authority Ivan G. Shreve Jr. in the Comments section.

• When next you’re in New York City, you might want to check out former detective Ike Ilkiw’s Manhattan Murder and Mystery Tour.

• Aaron Elkins, the Edgar Award-winning author of the Gideon Oliver series as well as the new thriller, The Worst Thing, is the subject of Jeff Rutherford’s latest Reading and Writing Podcast. Listen here.

• Who won this year’s Scribe Awards, “honoring excellence in media tie-in writing”? Click here to discover the answer.

• If you haven’t already read the free online version of Jim Winter’s novel, Road Rules, you had better do so quickly: the Web site offering that version will disappear by Labor Day, after which an e-book version will go on sale for 99 cents.

• Congratulations to Max Allan Collins for sealing a deal with British publisher Titan to complete three more of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished Mike Hammer novel manuscripts: Lady Go, Die!, Complex 90, and King of the Weeds (all of which Collins talked about during this interview with The Rap Sheet). Kudos are also due Collins for selling his 2007 historical thriller, Black Hats (published under the byline “Patrick Culhane”), to Hollywood. Omnimystery News reports that Harrison Ford will star as an older but still tough Wyatt Earp in the big-screen version.

• By the way, if you didn’t catch Collins’ reports from last weekend’s Comic-Con convention in San Diego, you can still read them here.

• Speaking of convention coverage, click here, here, and here for Ayo Onatade’s reports from the recent Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. Author Michael Malone has posted his own observations about that event here.

• Australian Kerrie Smith is looking for bloggers who’d like to participate in a celebration of Agatha Christie’s on September 15.

• I have been very much enjoying novelist Ronald Tierney’s series of posts about San Francisco’s independent bookstores--and I suspect you will, as well. It would be terrific if other bloggers could conduct such surveys of their own hometown bookshops.

• Another great series worth reading: The pseudonymous Guy Savage’s analyses, in His Futile Projections, of author Jim Thompson’s oft-underappreciated crime works.

A previously unrecognized crime novel by Ed Lacy, better known as the author of the private-eye novel Room to Swing (1957)?

• Tipping My Fedora picks the top 10 surprise villains in films.

• As someone who’s susceptible to television nostalgia, I’ve been enjoying Lee Goldberg’s growing collection of fall TV promos. The one I remember best, and that can still get me singing along, is this example of the breed. I wish I could still get excited about each fall’s new small-screen offerings. Sigh ...

• J. Sydney Jones interviews Les Roberts, author of the Milan Jacovich series of Cleveland-set gumshoe novels, the latest installment of which is The Cleveland Creep, released this last May.

• Other interviews to check out sometime: For Mean Streets, Paul D. Brazill talks with Ray Banks; David Schow chats up Duane Swierczynski (whose latest novel, Fun & Games, also gets a bit of good press in photographer Mark V. Krajnak’s blog); Allan Guthrie goes mano-a-mano with Paul Bishop; South African fictionist Roger Smith converses with Daniel Musiitwa at; and screenwriter-author Heywood Gould interviews himself in the blog Sea Minor.

• Ever heard of spy novelist Thomas Cauldron?

• Finally, this is for Robert van Gulik fans. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, a film that proved very popular during the latest Tribeca Film Festival, is expected to be released in the United States this fall, “likely straight to DVD for most of us, but previously it’s only been available in foreign standards and lamentable, execrable bootlegs,” writes Clare Toohey.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Past Transgressions

In my column this week for the Kirkus Reviews Web site, I have written about “five of the best and most interesting” historical crime novelists around: Jonathan Rabb, Anne Perry, Stuart M. Kaminsky, Edward Marston, and Michael Gregorio. You’ll find that new column here.

Of course, my list could’ve gone well beyond five names. There are myriad more purveyors of historical mysteries working today. So I also put together a page of other top picks from this subgenre.

Please feel free to chime in on the Kirkus site with your own suggestions of what recent or older works fans of historical crime fiction--like me--should be reading.

Championing the Cringe-worthy

I’ve written at least a couple of times in the past about the notorious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Held ever since 1982, this competition is named in honor (or should it be dishonor?) of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the English novelist-playwright who’s remembered best for the opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night.” The contest asks writers and aspiring humorists to submit what they think are the worst opening sentences for books that (let’s hope) will never see print.

Among this year’s prize winners are three in the crime-fiction category. This top vote-getter comes from Mark Wisnewski of Flanders, N.J.:
Wearily approaching the murder scene of Jeannie and Quentin Rose and needing to determine if this was the handiwork of the Scented Strangler--who had a twisted affinity for spraying his victims with his signature raspberry cologne--or that of a copycat, burnt-out insomniac detective Sonny Kirkland was sure of one thing: he’d have to stop and smell the Roses.
The runner-up in that same category is Highland Park, N.J., resident Andrew Baker, who sent along this death-row digression:
Five minutes before his scheduled execution, Kip found his thoughts turning to his childhood--all those years ago before he had become a contract killer whose secret weakness was a severe peanut allergy, even back before he lost half of a toe in a gardening accident while doing community service--but especially to Corinne, the pretty girl down the street whom he might have ended up marrying one day if she had only shown him a little more damn respect.
A “dishonorable mention” has also been given for crime fiction, the recipient being Basil McDonnell of Vancouver, B.C., Canada. His submission reads as follows:
The victim was a short man, with a face full of contradictions: amalgam, composite, dental porcelain, with both precious and non-precious metals all competing for space in a mouth that was open, bloody, terrifying, gaping, exposing a clean set of asymptomatic impacted wisdom teeth, but clearly the object of some very comprehensive dental care, thought Dirk Graply, world-famous womanizer, tough guy, detective, and former dentist.
The full list of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton prize winners and runners-up can be found here. Rules for entering the 2012 competition are here.

(Hat tip to The Little Professor.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Life Imitates Fiction — Damn!

(Editor’s note: San Francisco author and blogger Ronald Tierney has written one previous post for The Rap Sheet, a “forgotten books” piece about Diva, by the pseudonymous Delacorta. Today he offers readers of this page a much different, more personal sort of tale relating to his latest release, a novella called Mascara: Death in the Tenderloin [Life, Death and Fog Books], which serves as a prequel of sorts to his Noah Lang private-eye series.)

I wrote a book in which a man is shot as he sat in an outdoor café on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s legendary North Beach neighborhood.

In April, on my way to North Beach for an appointment with the book’s designers, I stepped off the bus at a stop in Chinatown and walked up the same street my characters walked to witness the assassination. As I walked, I remembered what I’d written about it. Instead of touristy Grant Avenue, the characters picked the more crowded Stockton Street, where Chinese from all over the city come to shop for produce. Nary a Caucasian face among the thousands of people buying fruit and vegetables in the marketplace. The characters chose this path to be able to spot a Caucasian who might be tailing them. As I walked, little bits of the book narrative floated in and out of my mind.

I was in good spirits. I was early enough for my appointment that I could stop for lunch and had just the place in mind. A glass of wine and some pasta at an outside table--a leisurely meal while I sat back and watched the pedestrians go about their business. The other reason I was in a good mood was that while I’ve had 14 published mystery novels, this was one I was doing myself. The very talented designers had sent me a mock-up of new book’s cover. I liked it. They created a sense of drama, of urgency. They used a striking photograph of the San Francisco Fire Department at work. The fire department figures twice in my story--once at a murderous fire in the Tenderloin and again on a medical emergency run on Columbus Avenue, when and where the aforementioned fictional character is shot.

My Sangiovese arrived with a salad and some bread. The front wall of the restaurant sheltered me from the wind and the temperature was just cool enough for me to be perfectly comfortable in my jacket. I was waiting on the Pasta Putanesca, which this restaurant does particularly well.

I took a sip of wine, but had trouble holding a slice of bread. My left hand had gone numb. I was sure it was nothing. My hand had simply gone to sleep. It had happened a few times lately when I tried to type and the sensation always, after a few moments, went away. I waited. But instead of recovering, my hand decided to tap on the table without my willing it to do so. It became clear something was wrong. Even so, whatever it was didn’t seem serious. There was no pain. The strange, independent hand movement would subside, I was sure. It didn’t. In a few moments, I had trouble catching my breath. My body began to shake. Darkness began to seep in from behind me. I tried to call out. I thought I was speaking, but I couldn’t hear my voice. I was being swallowed by darkness. I tried to fight my way out of it, pull myself forward where I thought the light would be. I was losing the battle.

I heard a voice say, “call 9-1-1.” I had no idea who said it.

There was only darkness.

The next time I saw anything there were red fire trucks in front of me and people in uniforms, firefighters in hats--people moving about with a sense of urgency. The paramedics hooked me up to oxygen and were pulling at my jacket, hovering over me and asking questions. The same kind of intense fervor that was on the cover of my new book jacket was happening in front of me.

I could now see and hear the commotion, understand the questions, but my answers came out gibberish. The EMTs were cool, calm, and focused. I was loaded into a red ambulance that bounced and rolled and shuddered like the large tin can it was. The attendants were taking all sorts of measurements, asking questions, trying to figure it out. Left hand. Blood pressure through the roof. Stroke. Nope. There were other indications that didn’t fit. I could raise my arms, turn my palms, do things that stroke victims apparently couldn’t.

Once in Emergency, I was wheeled to different floors of the hospital and my body went through various flickering, humming futuristic contraptions. Pictures were being taken in one fashion or another. One set of films showed blood in my brain. Another located the tumor, which was removed the next day. I was home the day after that with anti-seizure pills and a bottle of Tylenol, feeling nearly normal.

The thing is, I can imagine that the sensations the imaginary character in my book felt when the bullet hit him were at least comparable to the sensations I felt sitting at a similar table at a similar restaurant on the same street when an impenetrable darkness swallowed my consciousness--as it must have for my character, had he actually existed.

Usually, writers try to write about what we know, draw from our real-life experience in order to create fiction. Somehow, I managed to do this in reverse. That is an uncomfortable, chilling thought, especially for a writer who plays around with murder.

Once a Crook

Well, it’s about damn time! The Web site TV Shows on DVD reports that the 1968-1970 spy adventure series It Takes a Thief, starring Robert Wagner as a globetrotting cat burglar turned U.S. government agent, is due out in an 18-DVD collectible set on October 11. Here’s that site’s description of the set:
Priced at $199.98 SRP, you will get all 3 seasons of the classic TV show from the late ’60s, presented in the original full-screen video format with English mono audio. There are English subtitles on board, too. Also included you’ll find extras such as a retrospective featurette, a new Robert Wagner interview, the “Magnificent Thief” version of the pilot episode, “A Matter of Larceny” interview with [producer] Glen A. Larson, and a collectible photo book.
It Takes a Thief was one of my favorite Saturday afternoon indulgences as a boy. Oh, how I longed to be Wagner’s suave thief/spy, Alexander Mundy. But far too many years have passed since I sat down to enjoy that series, with its ultra-cool theme by jazz pianist Dave Grusin. Add this DVD set, pricey though it will be, to my must-have list.

READ MORE:It Takes a Thief Now Playing on a Computer Near You,” by Dean Brierly (CinemaRetro).

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Remembering Ray

As Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy blog reminds us, today marks the 123rd year since the birth of American detective novelist Raymond Chandler. There’s more to learn about this oft-troubled but talented man here, here, and here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Daggers Flying Everywhere

There’s been lots of news coming out today from the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, being held in Harrogate, England.

To begin, we can now broadcast the first five winners of Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger Awards for 2011. They are as follows:

CWA International Dagger: Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, translated by Kari Dickson (Quercus)

Also nominated: The Wings of the Sphinx, by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli (Mantle); Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar (Bitter Lemon Press); The Saint-Florentin Murders, by Jean-François Parot, translated by Howard Curtis (Gallic); River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi, translated by Joseph Farrell (MacLehose); An Uncertain Place, by Fred Vargas, translated by Siân Reynolds (Harvill Secker); and Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar, translated by Sonia Soto (Abacus)

(Editor’s note: Astute readers of Karen Meek’s Euro Crime blog had predicted a different result in this category, betting on Vargas’ An Uncertain Place, instead.)

CWA Gold Dagger for Non-fiction: The Killer of Little Shepherds, by Douglas Starr (Simon & Schuster)

Also nominated: The Invention of Murder, by Judith Flanders (HarperCollins); Slaughter on a Snowy Morn, by Colin Evans (Icon Books); In the Place of Justice, by Wilbert Rideau (Profile); The Murder Room, by Michael Capuzzo (Michael Joseph); and Mr. Briggs’ Hat, by Kate Colquhoun (Little, Brown)

CWA Short Story Dagger: “Homework,” by Phil Lovesey (from The Mammoth Book of Best British Crime, Vol. 8, edited by Maxim Jakubowski; Constable & Robinson)

Also nominated: “Wednesday’s Child,” by Ken Bruen (from First Thrills, edited by Lee Child; Forge); “The Princess of Felony Flats,” by Bill Cameron (from First Thrills); “East of Suez, West of Charing Cross Road,” by John Lawton (from Agents of Treachery, edited by Otto Penzler; Vintage); and “The Dead Club,” by Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer (from First Thrills)

CWA Debut Dagger (for not-yet-published works): What Hidden Lies, by Michele Rowe (South Africa)

Also nominated: A Burial Place for Strangers, by Sharon Hunt (Canada); A Quiet Night in Entebbe, by Peter Wynn Norris (UK); A Vicious Indulgence, by Annie Hauxwell (Australia); Biographies of a Victim, by Gunnar Lange-Nielsen (Norway); The Boy Who Loved Penguins, by S.W.C. Webb (UK); The Greengrocers and Fruiterers’ Convention, by Martin Ungless (UK); Hide and Seek, by Sarah Darby (UK); Men of the Rose, by Jessica Ramage (UK); The Outrageous Behaviour of Left-Handed Dwarves, by Graham Brack (UK); The Temp, by Luke Melia (UK); and Unveiled Threats, by Stephanie Light (UK)

CWA Dagger in the Library: Mo Hayder

Also nominated: S.J. Bolton (Bantam Press); William Brodrick (Little, Brown); R.J. Ellory (Orion); Jason Goodwin (Faber and Faber); Elly Griffths (Quercus); Sophie Hannah (Hodder & Stoughton); John Harvey (William Heinemann); Susan Hill (Vintage); Graham Hurley (Orion); Peter James (Macmillan); Philip Kerr (Quercus); Phil Rickman (Quercus/Corvus); C.J. Sansom (Macmillan); Andrew Taylor (Penguin); and L.C. Tyler (Macmillan)

* * *

In addition, an announcement was made today of “three key book longlists and one shortlist for the [2011] Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards on ITV3, celebrating the very best of British and International crime thriller fiction.” Here are those contenders.

CWA Gold Dagger:
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin (Pan)
Hanging Hill, by Mo Hayder (Bantam Press)
Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller (Atlantic Books)
The Cypress House, by Michael Koryta (Hodder & Stoughton)
The End of the Wasp Season, by Denise Mina (Orion)
The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton (Orion)
The Villa Triste, by Lucretia Grindle (Pan)
White Heat, by M.J McGrath (Mantle)

CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
An Agent of Deceit, by Chris Morgan Jones (Mantle)
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson (Doubleday)
Cold Rain, by Craig Smith (Myrmidon)
Savages, by Don Winslow (Heinemann)
The Cobra, by Frederick Forsyth (Corgi)
The Good Son, by Michael Gruber (Corvus)
The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton (Orion)
The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming (HarperCollins)

CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger:
Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson (Doubleday)
Into the Darkest Corner, by Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad)
Kiss Me Quick, by Danny Miller (Robinson)
Or the Bull Kills You, by Jason Webster (Chatto & Windus)
Sister, by Rosamund Lupton (Piatkus)
The Dead Woman of Juárez, by Sam Hawken (Serpent’s Tail)
The Dogs of Rome, by Conor Fitzgerald (Bloomsbury)
The Poison Tree, by Erin Kelly (Hodder)

ITV3 People’s Bestseller Dagger:
The Sixth Man, by David Baldacci (Macmillan)
Worth Dying For, by Lee Child (Bantam)
Good As Dead, by Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)
Dead Man’s Grip, by Peter James (Macmillan)
Before the Poison, by Peter Robinson (Hodder)

Shortlists for the first three categories will be released in mid-August.

Meanwhile, the British public is being invited to cast ballots for the ITV3 People’s Bestseller Dagger. Voting begins tomorrow, July 23. Click here for more information.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Birds of a Feather Plot Together

This is a big year for fans of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. At least for fans of the motion pictures adapted from that best-selling, milestone 1930 detective yarn. Two of those films celebrate notable anniversaries in 2011.

Over a decade-long period in the early 20th century, three black-and-white motion pictures were released, all based on Hammett’s only novel about San Francisco private eye Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon (1931), Satan Met a Lady (1936), and the best-known of this lot, the John Huston-directed Humphrey Bogart film, The Maltese Falcon (1941). On the Spade page of his excellent Thrilling Detective Web Site, Kevin Burton Smith supplies this background:
The first attempt, starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, was a solid, if unspectacular film. Cortez played Spade as a smirking womanizer, too smug to possibly be taken seriously. But the women in it were well cast, and easy on the eyes. The film was flawed by an anti-climactic jailhouse ending that merely reinforced the notion of Spade as something of a shit. ... But there was a lot I liked about this version. I liked the guy who played [Miles] Archer--his being much older than [his wife] Iva made sense. And I did like the fact Spade at least appeared to have a sex drive (which made him even more credible as a shit to Iva than Bogart was). I thought the women on the whole were more believable (and a whole lot sexier) and the exposition a lot clearer (even if some of the book was MIA). But what struck me the most was how much Huston’s version followed this one. The identical camera angles, the set-ups, the framing of shots--even the way the lines were read are often exactly the same. And the 1941 cast looks like it was chosen for its resemblance to the 1931 originals. It’s like they filmed the rehearsal and ten years later Huston tidied up the rough edges. ...

The second version
, Satan Met a Lady ..., seemed “incapable of deciding whether to be a screwball comedy or a murder mystery.” Many changes were made to the original plot, the characters, even the title. None were for the better.

Sam Spade is now Ted Shane, the Fat Man is now the Fat Lady, Bette Davis is lackluster as Miss Wonderly [renamed Valerie Purvis], and the Black Bird is now a ram’s horn. Generally considered poorly acted, forced and dull. Intended, perhaps, as a spoof, but of what? Warren William as Spade had possibly the biggest head in Hollywood, but so what? At the end of the film, having finally grabbed the bejeweled horn, he gives it a tentative toot. “Honey, it blows,” he informs Miss Wonderly. I know how he feels.

The third time was the charm.
The Maltese Falcon, released in 1941 by Warner Bros., written and directed by John Huston, and starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade was an amazing, powerful piece of work. Okay, Bogey didn’t match the description of Spade in the book. He was too small and too dark, but can anyone ever picture anyone else ever playing Spade? In fact, Bogart was so good as Spade, that his later appearance as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe never seemed right to me. Add a memorable cast of colorful characters (with Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaugnessy, Lee Patrick as Effie Perine, Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman, Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo and Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook) and a taut moody screenplay that was essentially the novel itself, and you’ve got the making of the archetypal private-eye film. Decades later, filmmakers are still trying to crawl out from its shadow.

The film proved to be such a success that Sam Spade started showing up all over. Three short stories written by Hammett and published back in the early thirties (all pretty weak, compared to
The Maltese Falcon), were collected and published in book form.

There was even a plan to do a sequel with Bogart and the rest, but it never came to fruition.
The first Maltese Falcon film debuted in theaters on June 13, 1931--80 years ago last month. Bogart’s version was released on October 3, 1941, which means its 70th anniversary is coming up in just three months. To celebrate these occasions, we are embedding below their respective dramatizations of one of the most familiar scenes from Hammett’s novel, the one in which Spade negotiates with the mysterious criminal, Gutman, for a “fall guy,” somebody to take the blame for a couple of murders. Roy Del Ruth, who directed the 1931 flick, and John Huston handled this episode quite differently, though as you’ll see below, much of the tone and success of the scene depends on the actors involved.

From 1931’s The Maltese Falcon:

From 1941’s The Maltese Falcon:

Without question, Bogart took command of this scene in a way that Cortez, as Spade, never did. And actor Greenstreet, playing Gutman, is more credible and far less of a ham than was Dudley Digges in the same role. If you have a chance, watch these two films back to back (and throw in Satan Met a Lady, if you’re a Bette Davis enthusiast). But note that there are good reasons why the 1941 version is considered a classic, and its decade-older predecessor isn’t seen much nowadays.

At Last, Child Can Celebrate

After walking away without this prize in earlier years, Lee Child has won the 2011 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, “one of the most prestigious prizes in crime fiction,” for his 2010 Jack Reacher thriller 61 Hours. The longlist of nominees is available here.

Bullet Points: Fast-Graze Edition

I don’t really have time today to put together a full-blown wrap-up, but here are a few interesting items that have caught my eye recently:

• The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival opens today in Harrogate, England. Tonight will bring the presentation of the Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. Nominees are here.

A wide-ranging two-part interview between veteran novelists Lawrence Block and Robert Silverberg has been posted in the Mulholland Books blog. Part I is here, Part II is here.

• Meanwhile, Sandra Ruttan interviews herself in Sea Minor.

• Has true-crime writer Ann Rule been a little “sloppy” with her storytelling? (Hat tip to Craig Pittman.)

• Keeping track of mistakes in private-eye novels.

• Lee Child has prepared a prequel to his Jack Reacher series, titled Second Son, which will be released as an e-book on August 15.

• And tickets now on sale for the 2011 Ngaio Marsh Award presentation, set to take place in Christchurch, New Zealand, on August 21. The longlist of eight novels contending for that commendation can be found here. And readers anywhere in the world are invited to enter a contest to win copies of all of those books; look for more information here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Story Behind the Story:
“Steal the Show,” by Thomas Kaufman

(Editor’s note: For the 23rd installment of our “Story Behind the Story” series, we’re bringing back Marylander Thomas Kaufman, an award-winning motion-picture director and cameraman, and the author of last year’s Drink the Tea, which introduced Washington, D.C., sleuth Willis Gidney and won the 2008 Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press competition for Best First P.I. Novel. Kaufman previously penned a piece in The Rap Sheet about Build My Gallows High, a “forgotten,” 1946 novel by Geoffrey Homes. Below, he supplies some background to his second Gidney outing, Steal the Show, which was released earlier this month.)

When I do a book tour, people ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?”

If there’s one persistent question, that’s it. And while I understand the subtext of the question (“How can I write a novel?”), it points to a basic misunderstanding of what writing a book really is, and isn’t.

The newspaper is full of ideas for stories. I always have my antennae out, just in case I run across something that gets me going. But an idea is not a book. So how does it work?

Well, for me, it’s like this:

When I moved to Washington, D.C., one of the first jobs I got as a cameraman was shooting for the National Bureau of Standards, now known as NIST. Some scientists were setting fire to a room, the same room, over and over again, and measuring the rate and pattern of the flame spreading. I remember it got so hot that the Pyrex safety glass in front of my camera lens melted--and the image kind of melted in my viewfinder. I thought I had lost focus!

I did a lot of work at that place, filming robotics, automated manufacturing, lasers, and cool ways to measure the flow of liquids (you guessed it: vortex-shedding flowmeters).

But the most sensational stuff was in the cryptography section. Those guys were making a walkie-talkie for the FBI that was digital, dude. In the early 1980s, that was way out there. And, they boasted, the signal was encrypted.

Now, that was cool. And it got me thinking about encrypted satellite signals. The U.S. military was using a code that changed every 30th of a second, but that was too easy to decipher. Its people were working on an extended code that would be virtually impossible to crack. Hmm ...

Through my contacts, I’ve been in film warehouses over the years, and can tell you that a six-reel print of a feature film weighs about 100 pounds and costs around $1,500. Compare that to a hard drive you can carry in your pocket. The idea of delivering movies into theaters via satellite intrigued me.

Sending something--anything--via satellite is not new. But using it to defeat film piracy is.

It’s hard to get an accurate gauge of how much money film distributors lose each year to piracy, but it’s somewhere between six and twenty. Billion dollars, that is. So you can see why it would be nice to stop the piracy. Encrypted satellite delivery of movies won’t keep out the kid with the handheld video camera, but it would reduce the number of thefts and illegal duplications.

So I had these ideas in my head: the whole satellite thing, and film piracy, how you could defeat the pirates with coded satellites. I spoke with the folks at NIST, who gave me great information, then they turned me loose on the technical director of film distribution at Warner Bros. This lady was terrific, and she also gave me names of other folks to speak with.

Like a lot of writers, I enjoy the research part of the job. Maybe too much. Sometimes I find myself reading just one more article, or talking to just one more person, rather than tackling my manuscript.

But I did speak with other experts. All good stuff. But kinda dry--not a book, not yet.

Then something happened. A friend had told me this story:
I used to work at a firm that makes a consumer electronics gadget. The company was owned and operated by three guys: a father, his son, and a third guy. Just when the company got red-hot, the father and the other guy squeezed the son out. Since the son had signed a non-compete clause, he used that time to develop the same type of electronic gadget. When the non-compete clause expired, the son announced his own company, in competition with his father. The son wanted to drive his father out of business.
In other words, payback.

I’m interested in family dynamics. For my first book, Drink the Tea (2010), I imagined a daughter who didn’t want her long-lost father to find her. My new novel, Steal the Show, uses the story I outlined above. The relationship between father and son intrigued me. What kind of people were they? So it wasn’t the idea, or the scenario of what happened, that interested me most; it was the why of it, starting with why did the son get squeezed out?

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the great 20th-century writers. He talked about visiting a prison in French Guiana. He was looking forward to meeting these desperate men, men who had killed out of love, hate, jealousy. What he found surprised him: virtually every inmate he spoke with told him the same thing--and it all came down to money.

Sure, an inmate might be jealous of his woman stepping out with another man, but after close conversation Maugham realized that a man killed because his woman was spending his money on somebody else. Making him a fool, in other words, and cheating on him at the same time. Or maybe a man killed his wife and business partner because they were committing adultery. But then Maugham found out it was the business partner’s mistakes which cost them a fortune--and the partner his life. Again and again, the urge to kill came from feeling ripped off.

From the results of his research Maugham wrote a story called “A Man with a Conscience” (1939) about a true crime of passion, perhaps the only one Maugham ever came across. It’s a great story, but it also puts writers like myself on the lookout. It’s as though Maugham is telling us to probe deeper, to see beneath the surface.

I try to do something similar, layering in motivations for both the good guys and bad guys, and in that way, attempting to make them as dimensional players.

In Steal the Show I try to look deep into my characters. I’m using my own store of human knowledge, using it to texture and shade the people on both sides of the law.

When we read a story, we want to be entertained--that is, we want the writer to hold our attention. But we’d like a bit more, please. We’d like to gain an insight into human behavior. We want the author to show us his understanding of the people about whom we are reading.

So a story may catch a spark from an idea. But the idea is not the story; the story is about what that idea inspires in terms of characters, the dimensional people who populate your book.

Last thing: when I read a book in which the characters are dimensional, they become alive for me. I sometimes find myself thinking about them, long after I’ve finished reading the book. In other words, the characters resonate for me. Has a writer ever affected you that way?

On the Scene in San Diego

Author Max Allan Collins is currently in San Diego, California, attending this year’s Comic-Con International. If you aren’t able to join him there, don’t worry: he promises to file daily dispatches to his blog. “[E]xpect the first missive to appear Thursday morning, July 21,” Collins writes, “and every day thereafter through July 25.” Look for those postings here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Subgenre That Came in from the Cold

For my Kirkus Reviews column this week, I interviewed Barry Forshaw, a well-respected British crime-fiction critic who is currently composing a book called Death in a Cold Climate: Scandinavian Crime Fiction (due out from UK publisher Palgrave Macmillan in early 2012). We talked at some length about the rise and distinctiveness of Nordic crime fiction.

When you have a chance, go read the column here. And I’ll be thrilled if you leave comments with the piece, especially suggestions about which books and authors in this subgenre you’ve enjoyed.

* * *

Although the Kirkus piece is not a short one, I still had to leave out several aspects I found interesting. Here are a few parts of the exchange that were left on the cutting room floor:

J. Kingston Pierce: What is it that sets Nordic crime fiction apart from what’s being turned out by writers in Britain, America, Germany, and elsewhere? Is it the storytelling approach, the atmospherics, or the protagonists that are different?

Barry Forshaw: Many American and British authors are content to relate their narratives in carefully organized, linear fashion without attempting to test the elasticity of the medium. The result: work which is weighted with precisely those elements required to produce a Pavlovian response in the reader, with all the customary elements (suspense, obfuscation, resolution) employed in a straightforward contract between author and reader. Scandinavian crime fiction, however, is more prepared to toy with notions of improvisation and destabilization of the generic form, producing writing which may sketch in the rough parameters of the crime novel but also attempts to expand the possibilities of the medium--those possibilities which so often remained unexplored. There is often an initial resistance to unfamiliar, convention-stretching innovation, which is why so much anodyne product is available. Even the least ambitious Nordic fiction, however, is often prepared to take some audacious steps into the unknown, producing fiction which can function both as popular product and personal statement from the author.

JKP: You say that Nordic writers attempt to “expand the possibilities of the medium.” Can you provide give me an example of that?

BF: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s continuing influence (since the death of Per Wahlöö) remains prodigious. They were the ne plus ultra of the socially committed crime novel. The sequence of books featuring their tenacious policeman Martin Beck are shot through with the ideological rigor of his creators; that’s to say: as well as being lean and compelling crime novels, they simultaneously function as an unforgiving left-wing critique of Swedish society (and of Western society in general). But this shouldn’t put off those readers conscious of Marxism’s fall from favor, since it first inspired Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö in a very different era; the duo took the relatively conservative format of the detective novel and introduced genuinely radical elements into what was at the time an unthreatening form (with, they felt, distinctly bourgeois values), and they were able to both enrich and re-energize what had become something of a moribund field.

JKP: Without Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, do you think Nordic crime writers would be selling much beyond their own countries right now?

BF: The answer to that can be encapsulated in four words: Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.

JKP: Yet it was unquestionably a smaller contingent of readers who appreciated Mankell’s series about Swedish police detective Wallander. Didn’t it take Larsson’s novels to make the Nordic crime-fiction subgenre a worldwide phenomenon?

BF: Larsson was the all-conquering Visigoth army, but Mankell was the Trojan horse.

Uploads and Updates

If you haven’t been checking out the St. Louis Bouchercon blog, you’ve missed out on some fine interviews with first-time Anthony Award nominees. The conversations are being conducted by author Julia Spencer-Fleming, who has so far buttonholed Graham Moore (The Sherlockian), Bruce De Silva (Rogue Island), James Thompson (Snow Angels), and others.

The full run of those interviews should be found here.

* * *

Meanwhile, Bouchercon organizer (and Crimespree Magazine co-editor) Jon Jordan sent out a message yesterday to people who’ve signed up for the September 15-18 convention. In it, he reminded everybody that tickets (at $25 apiece) are now available for the Sunday Anthony Awards brunch. Send cash or checks, along with your name, to:

Bouchercon 2011
536 South 5th Street
Milwaukee, WI 53204

Also, he writes, “If you plan to be on a panel, please please please get ... your 100-word-or-ess bio and a (small) photo to us by Friday; anything arriving after that may not make it into the program book.” Send those materials to Jordan at

Check the Bouchercon blog here for further updates.

He’s Oil Right

This week’s short-fiction contribution to Beat to a Pulp comes from New York writer Glenn Gray. His story is titled “Bigorexia.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Paul Johnston: Inconstant Star

I’ve followed British author Paul Johnston’s work ever since he debuted in 1997 with Body Politic--a book that went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association’s prestigious John Creasey Memorial Dagger for Best Debut Novel. Body Politic was the first in a series of highly acclaimed crime-fiction works, all featuring maverick former cop-turned-private eye Quintilian Dalrymple, and all set in a near-future, low-tech, and crime-averse Edinburgh, Scotland. (The other four installments were The Bone Yard [1998], Water of Death [1999], The Blood Tree [2000], and The House of Dust [2001]). I remain quite fond of that quintet of tales, with their amusing insights into human nature and their dystopian elements. Johnston (shown at left) describes the series’ set-up this way:
The United Kingdom (and much of Europe) has been torn apart by drugs wars in the early years of the twenty-first century. Gangs of criminals run wild in most areas, but Edinburgh is different. In the last election of 2003, the people vote in the Enlightenment Party, a small grouping of university professors that promises to get rid of crime. They succeed in doing so, forming themselves into a Council of City Guardians backed up by a powerful force of auxiliaries (policemen and bureaucrats)--their ideas came from Plato, that well-known thinker and proto-fascist. The ordinary citizens, as the bulk of the population is termed, benefit from guaranteed work, housing, welfare and lifelong education. They also attend a compulsory sex session every week. On the downside, the regime has banned cars, computers, smoking, television, private phones and popular music--and your partner in the weekly sex session is chosen for you by the authorities. Of course, things are not what they seem in this supposedly benevolent totalitarian system. Far from doing away with crime, the guardians have only pushed it underground. They are too busy looking after the tourists who come to Edinburgh for the year-round festival, the gambling, the licensed brothels and the marijuana clubs. And where there’s sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, you can be sure that crime will raise its ugly head ...

Enter our hero. Quintilian--Quint, for short--Dalrymple is a former senior policeman who was demoted after refusing to accept orders. At the start of the series he works as a laborer, handling missing-persons cases in his spare time. He is tolerated by the guardians because he takes some pressure off the overworked City Guard--and because he’s good at what he does. Quint is a maverick who gets up the regime’s collective nose, a lover of whisky and the blues. You can trace his roots back to [Philip] Marlowe and Sam Spade, to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes, and to any hard-nosed cop you care to name (Bullitt, Popeye Doyle, whoever)--though he has a softer, more intellectual side to him.
Then, in 2002, Johnston launched a new, modern-day series, this one set in Greece (to which the author himself had by then moved) and starring a private eye named Alex Mavros. The character’s surname is an in-joke, since “mavros” is Greek for “black” or “noir.” But the books are serious, and eminently readable. There are three of them so far: 2002’s A Deeper Shade of Blue (recently retitled Crying Blue Murder), 2003’s Sherlock Award-winning The Last Red Death, and 2004’s The Golden Silence (2004). Crime novelist Simon Kernick and I interviewed Johnston back in 2002, and he talked at length about using the Greek backdrop in his Mavros adventures:
I think [location is] part of the whole make-up of your writing, and you can’t separate these segments: character, setting and plot. They are all organically linked. But I’ve always had a particularly strong feeling for landscape. I think that, part of the reason why I’ve been involved with Greece is that it’s such a beautiful, but a hard landscape--very unforgiving, even more so than Scotland, where the hills are soft and covered in heather. In Greece, it’s a killer landscape. So it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. In fact, I did some academic work when I was in Oxford on the works of D.H. Lawrence, which touched upon the importance of landscape in fiction writing, as Lawrence wrote with one eye on his location at all times.

I also feel that landscape is something that is not always given enough attention in general fiction, while one of the wonderful things about crime fiction is that landscape/location is highly important in this genre. ... I think also that landscape can often act as a character, as landscapes have been affected by human beings in their shaping, mining, building; or, alternatively, [the landscapes] may not have been affected but can still potentially impact the lives of the humans around them. Like if you’re in a mountainous landscape, there are certain dangers associated with that, so you can’t but help bring that into the story.
But still, Johnston wasn’t satisfied. In 2007 he started yet a third series, this one hyper-violent and centered around a crime writer named Matt Wells, who is originally based in London, but eventually relocates to America. The first Wells thriller was The Death List (2007), followed by The Soul Collector (2008), Maps of Hell (2009), and his latest, The Nameless Dead--a novel I tore through. Reviewing The Nameless Dead, I wrote in the e-zine Shots:
Partway through the book, I swore I smelt cordite as I whipped through the pages, as it has no let-up in the action. There are myriad twists, with an interesting insight into the banality of the deranged. As Wells and the FBI search for Hoffmann, we get philosophical insights into the history of evil with mentions of the philosophers, the artists who captured the context and workings of Hell ...

Despite the violent and action-orientated trappings of
The Nameless Dead’s plot, there is an existentialist air to the proceedings that provokes thought and introspection. I would also watch out for Wells’ improvisation in a violently amusing final act. In fact Johnston’s sense of humor peppers the darkness of the narrative, making Wells’ journey bearable in a world filled with hate and evil. Highly recommended, but a warning to the faint of heart: Matt Wells’ world is a dark place.
After running into Paul Johnston at Bristol, England’s CrimeFest in May, I cornered him in a bar and recorded a short interview for The Rap Sheet. During our exchange, we talked about The Nameless Dead’s backdrop, his fondness for paranoiac 1970s conspiracy thrillers, his recent brush with the big “C,” his interest in confronting the existential questions about life and death, and why he’s back now penning a fifth Alex Mavros detective novel set in today’s troubled Greece.

Ali Karim: There are plenty of plot strands in the fourth and latest Matt Wells novel, The Nameless Dead, that can be traced back to the previous books. Had you planned this series well in advance?

Paul Johnston: Absolutely not. I wrote The Death List in a fit of extreme anger about the behavior of my former agent and publishers, with no contract or advance. When it was picked up for publication, I decided to go on in self-reflexive fashion, although very few people have noticed this. The books are really exercises in genre-questioning and reader-challenging. For a start, Wells is a crime novelist. Would you believe anything he says? So, he’s the classic potentially less-than-reliable narrator. The Soul Collector was an attempt to jam as many genre tropes in as possible--crime novelists as murder victims (and murderer), gang warfare, Satanism, aristocrats as baddies, sibling rivalry, a serial killer also as a professional assassin. Oh yes, and Agatha Christie-style crossword clues. I like ideas and think that there aren’t enough of them in the average crime novel.

AK: I have found the Matt Wells books to be the most violent and disturbing of your works, when compared with the more cerebral Quint Dalrymple novels or the later Alex Mavros series. However, the Wells stories are also filled with dark humor. Would you care to comment on the links between noir and humor?

PJ: Well, it’s a pretty obvious one, from cops’ gallows humor to Chandler-esque one-liners. My take on humor is that it’s much more important to our lives than we think, especially in times of difficulty (which most crime novel protagonists are now undergoing). I’d even go as far as to say that humor fulfils some of the functions that religion, especially rituals, did in the past--catharsis, redemption, alternative takes on the human condition. That doesn’t mean feeble jokes in the writing, rather it’s a philosophical underpinning--that life is so shit, that we are nothing if we can’t laugh at it. In that respect, humor is (a) very serious and (b) heroic.

AK: How did the plots of Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead distill in your mind, vis-à-vis Nazi occultists and their plan to make Matt Wells and his lover-turned-wife, Detective Chief Inspector Karen Oaten, into “Manchurian candidates”?

PJ: Er, by reading [Richard Condon’s 1959 novel] The Manchurian Candidate (along with The Bourne Identity--boy, [Robert] Ludlum’s prose style is glutinous) and pushing those ideas to the extreme. What really attracted me to the situation Wells finds himself in at the beginning of Maps of Hell--no reliable memories, not even of who he is; locked up, abused, forced to undergo a fake firing squad--was the idea of him having to find himself: in effect, to reinvent himself from scratch. Beyond that, he’s against a deadline, as he’s being framed for killings, so the tension gets ratcheted up even more. I love reading and writing pacy fiction. There isn’t enough of it. By the way, although both film versions of The Manchurian Candidate are interesting, the novel is something else--amazingly sexually frank for its time (mother-son incest, anyone?), and a brilliant political satire. Predictably, it’s only available from a small press, at least in the UK.

AK: Have you also watched other 1970s political paranoia movies, or read the books on which they were based: Winter Kills, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men?

PJ: Oh yes. Except Winter Kills, which has escaped me (the book, too). The last three were all classic ’70s paranoia thrillers, and that was the time when I grew up as a cinephile. They’re all brilliant and daring--and, of course, few movies of that sort are made these days, at least by major studios. Still, we don’t need them, given that the global financial/political system is an open conspiracy now, and so is not attractive to creative types. Hang on--that means we need them even more!

AK: The plot of The Nameless Dead, like all of your work, is complex and convoluted, with many twists and a very wide array of characters (some of whom boast multiple identities), so I assume you are a detailed plotter. Is that right?

PJ: I fall somewhere in the middle. I do have an outline--for Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead, they were more involved than I would normally do as that’s what my then-editor wanted. But I tend to go off-message whenever I can--not deliberately, but because that’s how the story develops.

AK: You refer in your Wells books to artists such as [Pieter] Bruegel, [Hieronymus] Bosch, and [Hans] Memling, as well as many philosophers. So how much research did you do into the ideological world that your author protagonist confronts?

PJ: A lot, but most of it was unnecessary. I’m an academic manqué (whence the Ph.D. in creative writing that I’ve been doing for years) and tend to do far too much research. There’s an argument that the research gets into the text in some indirect way, as if by osmosis. I think that would apply more to my overtly political novels than the Wells books. The bottom line with novelists is “make it up.” I certainly had fun inventing the Antichurch of Lucifer Triumphant (donations gratefully received). My basic feeling, first made clear in the Quint novels, is that everything in life is to do with power structures--family, friendship, school, university, workplace, government, etc. The ways we are encouraged to think about death (particularly by organized religion)--involving redemption, eternal life, paradise, etc.--all contribute to highly unequal power structures. Crime novels often take this on board without questioning it. I think that alternative approaches to how we think about and handle death (and serious injury and/or illness) are essential if we are to live full, in every sense of the word, lives.

AK: And the authenticity of the American backdrop?

PJ: I’ve been to the vast majority of the places I write about. For the rest, there’s plenty of info on Websites and in guidebooks. If in doubt, make it up ... I had the good fortune of having an American editor, so a lot of basic stuff was sorted out by him, especially as regards American English expressions, etc.

AK: I know you have had some health concerns. So I’m delighted to hear that you’ve overcome those. And I presumed that one of the reasons the Matt Wells books were so violent and filled with anger was related to that difficult period you traversed. Am I correct?

PJ: Health nightmares would be more accurate: two different cancers, which turned out to be linked by a faulty gene, which I may have passed on to my kids and means that I have a lifetime of intrusive tests ahead of me (better than being dead, of course--marginally). The anger is doubtless at least in part related to that. I have a different take on the human body, post-cancer, and to be honest not a particularly uplifting one: We are just lumps of meat, though I don’t go the whole hog, so to speak, and think that our minds and/or souls are run by our nerve synapses, or whatever. I have a different take on death as well, but that would take a very long time to go into. It’s in the weave of both Maps of Hell and The Nameless Dead. The latter, in which Wells has to come to terms with the deaths of people he cares very much about, is a kind of meditation on death in its many guises and tries to raise some major existential questions under the surface. How far should revenge be taken? Are killers different from other people and thus deserving of different deaths? What is hell and where is it? In the underdeveloped southern states of America? In Washington, D.C.? In Boston? Or in an underground training center modeled on the Inferno and run by a private army, that just happens to be owned by a minister who believes in the Rapture?

AK: The ending of The Nameless Dead gives you something of a fork in the road. So, will Wells return, or are you taking a break from his adventures? I heard on the grapevine that you’re busy penning another Greece-based Alex Mavros thriller.

PJ: I’ve nearly finished the fourth Mavros novel, The Silver Stain, which will be out in January 2012. Never say never, as regards series characters. I’m definitely not doing any more Wells in the immediate future, but might reanimate Quint Dalrymple.

AK: Are you still alternating residences between Greece and the UK? And can you tell us what it is like to be in Greece now, given all its economic austerity, civil disorder, and Euro crisis of the moment?

PJ: I spend more time in Greece--thankfully, no longer in Athens--than I used to, though I’m still a UK/Scottish resident, technically. Our little seaside town, Nafplio (for which spell check suggests “Nipple,” instead), hasn’t had riots or anything of that sort, though people are definitely beginning to feel the squeeze. My wife’s civil -service salary has been slashed by nearly 30 percent, and we’re waiting for more cuts and price rises. Personally, I think the leaders of Europe know perfectly well that Greece will, in effect, default and are just papering over the cracks in the Euro. What they call the “scissors” here--the gap between rich and poor--will cause enormous social unrest, a large increase in crime, and a huge amount of unhappiness. Unchecked global capitalism has a worm of corruption in it and tends towards entropy. We live in worrying times.

AK: Are the Greeks a nation of readers? And do you read Greek or any other languages?

PJ: The Greeks read a lot of newspapers, but only the upper middle-classes have the time to read books, in general. I read Greek (and have a couple of degrees in the language and literature), but I couldn’t say I see much good stuff around, either prose or poetry, at this juncture. Still, one can always fall back on the greatest poet and thinker of them all, Aristophanes.

AK: It’s good seeing you here at CrimeFest. What all have you been up to during your visit to Bristol?

PJ: Er, I can’t really remember. Wasn’t there a bar? It’s always great to catch up with fellow writers and with fans, plus to meet new ones. I’ve done a couple of panels, came second in the pub quiz ...

AK: You also won the CrimeFest “Criminal Mastermind” challenge. Can you tell us why you chose Sherlock Holmes as your “specialist topic”? And to what do you attribute the enduring appeal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian sleuths, Holmes and Dr. John Watson?

PJ: I chose dear old Holmes because I grew up with the stories and actually regard them as under-rated works critically. Conan Doyle was a much more complex man than he’s often given credit for, and this is visible if you scratch beneath the surface of the stories--Holmes is a paradox: a dope-head and a paragon of the establishment; a musician and a scientist; a cold fish but clearly deeply “in friendship” with Watson. There are also a lot of contradictions--the roles of women, opium dens, dysfunctional families, etc. The [Holmes stories] are actually great and challenging literature if you dig far enough. On the other hand, two of the novels--you know which ones--are structurally unbalanced, while one other is actually a novella and, The Hound of the Baskervilles, though great fun, is all over the place technically. The man was a short-story writer of genius, but no novelist. No matter. I still love him.

AK: I heard that you were considering penning an “overt” science-fiction novel, the Quint Dalrymple books having been more futuristic than hard SF. What’s the truth behind that?

PJ: I’ve been thinking about doing an SF book for years--largely because SF is full of ideas, as mentioned above. I might still do it, but the science side of it is beyond me. Dystopias are my limit, and there’s plenty of material for those in the current economic climate.

AK: You are a bit of a film buff. So what films you have enjoyed lately?

PJ: With small kids, I rarely get to the cinema. I recently saw Duncan Jones’s Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenhall and Vera Farmiga, and thought it was well done. Thor, on the other hand, was embarrassingly awful (I won’t reveal here which top-ten crime writer talked me into going to see it).

AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently that you’ve especially enjoyed?

PJ: I’ve been reading a lot of ghost stories recently, which might give you a hint of what I’m thinking about doing--or might not. The problem is, I just don’t get scared by them. Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter is a beautifully written account of the Arctic winter, but the supernatural aspect of it I thought very weak. Ditto the ghostly stuff in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Even Susan Hill’s work doesn’t chill me, while Kingsley Amis’ The Green Man has one of the nastiest protagonists in all literature--you can see where his son got that aspect of his writing from--but isn’t very scary. It may be that sustaining a ghost story to novel length is technically impossible. The best crime novel I’ve read recently is Malcolm Pryce’s Don’t Cry for Me, Aberystwyth, which is brilliantly funny and bursting with bonkers ideas. I liked Philip Kerr’s Field Gray too, but it’s less of a novel than a large amount of back-story being filled in. Great if you’ve read all the previous [Bernie] Gunther books.

AK: What are your plans after completing the fourth Alex Mavros novel?

PJ: A “mystery” mystery project, so to speak, and then Mavros #5, which I’ll be starting in January (when The Silver Stain will be out in hardback). I also have my World War I Gallipoli novel to do for my Ph.D. Some deity (Chronos?), please give me more hours in the day ...

One Year Is the Hardest Goal

Congratulations to Yvette Banek on her first “blog-o-versary.” She’s celebrating with a giveaway competition.

I Guess It’s Official Now

My name finally appears on the list of people scheduled to attend this coming fall’s Bouchercon in St. Louis, Missouri (though, oddly, there’s no link provided to The Rap Sheet). This will be the first time I’ve ever visited the so-called Gateway to the West, despite the fact that my late father was born in a St. Louis suburb. I hope to see something of the city, its environs, and its barbecue joints while I’m there, in addition to attending the convention events.

It All Begins with a Name

We finally have a title and a cover for the forthcoming Sherlock Holmes novel composed by Foyle’s War creator Anthony Horowitz. It’ll be called The House of Silk, and you can see what the front is going to look like here. Mulholland Books is set to release Horowitz’s new novel--“authorized by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate”--on November 1.