Sunday, May 31, 2015

Celebrating Crime in Bristol Fashion

(Editor’s note: CrimeFest 2015 took place earlier this month in Bristol, England. On hand for the festivities--as he so often is--was The Rap Sheet’s chief UK correspondent, Ali Karim. Below is his report.)

Authors Quentin Bates and Adrian Magson sample the wares on offer in the CrimeFest Book Room.

What’s now the annual British crime-fiction convention known as CrimeFest started out as a one-off installment of Left Coast Crime back in 2006. It’s chaired jointly by Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, supported by a dedicated team of helpers, and hosted by the wonderful four-star Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel. During this year’s gathering, from May 14 through 17, it seemed the international flavor that CrimeFest has cultivated approached a zenith, as overseas attendance was conspicuously visible, both in regards to speakers and general attendees. The popularity among Americans and others may have been boosted by the rare appearance of Sweden’s “Grandmother of Crime Fiction,” Maj Sjöwall, who engaged in an onstage exchange with Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Diamond Dagger winner Lee Child.

I thought the convention’s panel selections were especially interesting this year, thanks to careful planning by Scottish writer Donna Moore and her programming colleagues. The attractiveness of those group discussions was evidenced by standing-room only crowds at most such events, which resulted in a solid and consistent trade for Goldsboro Books. (Goldsboro managed the CrimeFest book room and also generously sponsors a number of genre awards in the UK, including the Goldsboro CWA Gold Dagger. In addition, it hosts various book launches at its store in Cecil Court, in London’s West End.) Another encouraging aspect of CrimeFest was the presence of so many new participants, which suggests that this genre is thriving, despite all the Chicken Little warnings about how the sky is falling on literacy. Yes, book publishing is currently under stress, thanks to continuing poor economic conditions in much of the world and increased demands upon readers’ time. But perhaps the crime, mystery, and thriller fiction field is best placed to survive, as it draws upon darker themes that appeal to so many of us.

Of course, one of the prime attractions of CrimeFest has to be the elegant, comfortable, Italianate-style Royal Hotel, with its superb convention facilities, helpful staff, fully equipped gym, and its location right in the heart of Bristol, convenient to myriad bars, restaurants, and overflow lodgings suiting all tastes and budgets.

What follows is an idiosyncratic recap of this year’s CrimeFest.

Thursday, May 14: Opening day, like all the days of this year’s gathering, began with events spotlighting debut authors and emerging talents. I have rarely attended a convention that boasted so many new names of writers and publishers, intermingled amongst the stalwarts. We can only hope that many of those new contributors to the genre will join trade organizations such as the CWA and the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), for when there is a storm brewing--as there most certainly is in publishing circles today--there’s comfort to be found in the old adage, “strength in numbers.” I always smile when I recall Stephen King’s words, “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” Lobbying organizations such as the CWA work to ensure that politicians, as well as the wider masses, realize the importance of literacy as a coping tool for life. “Biblio-therapy” is now widely acknowledged as an important method to combat anxiety, stress, and depression--and it sure beats main-lining Seroxat.

As has been true in conventions past, Martin Edwards’ Forgotten Authors panel discussion was well attended. It has in fact become a regular and much-loved feature of these CrimeFest weekends. This year it enjoyed an additional tailwind thanks to the success of the British Library’s Crime Classics series of previously out-of-print works (for which Edwards composes introductions) and the recent publication of Edwards’ labor of love, The Golden Age of Murder, which details the history of mystery fiction from the cross-hairs of The Detection Club.

Crime Watch’s Craig Sisterson, “mystery addicts” Bill and Toby Gottfried, and Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky.

After finding our feet with Friday’s initial panels, Detectives Beyond Borders blogger Peter Rozovsky (lured all the way to England from his home in Philadelphia) and I wandered off to the take part in the CrimeFest Pub Quiz, an excellent ice-breaker for all attendees. Participants were divided into six teams, with über-readers and reviewers of the genre being split up, to prevent any “super team” from overshadowing the proceedings. It was all good-natured fun, with the quizmaster, novelist-critic Peter Guttridge, sharing in the mirth with all of his contestants. Our team eventually took fourth-place honors, which was wholly respectable.

Since this was the first day of the convention, Rozovsky and I made a point of ending it at the hotel bar, where we looked up old friends and practiced the pronunciation of some of our overseas visitors’ names--not the easiest exercise as the alcohol flowed and our tongues became somewhat better lubricated than normal. As anyone who’s ever attended a book festival such as this will tell you, there are few things in life that can rival being surrounded by people who share the pleasures to be found in the written word.

Friday, May 15: This morning once more offered up debut authors (this time during a presentation managed by critic Jake Kerridge of The Daily Telegraph), as well as a writing-craft panel overseen by M.J. (Melanie) McGrath (The Bone Seeker). On top of its concurrent two tracks of panel events, though, Friday provided a series of In the Spotlight Sessions focusing on individual authors and authorities addressing a wide variety of crime-related subjects (such as Leigh Russell talking about “Gender Issues in Crime Fiction”).

(Left) Ali Karim with Golden Age mysteries expert Martin Edwards.

The topics covered this day by panel commentators (and occasional brave readers willing to offer up their opinions in public) ran from psychopaths and realism in fiction to the ways this genre covers sex, espionage, war crimes, and private eyes. There was also a very interesting Spotlight Session featuring horror writer-turned-crime fictionist Conrad Williams (Dust and Desire), who talked about the line that separates--or binds--those two literary genres. Not surprisingly, Nic Pizzolatto’s TV series, True Detective, merited a mention, as many of us are awaiting the start of its Season 2 with impatience and expectation.

Thanks to sponsors such as the Norwegian Embassy, and assistance from International Thriller Writers (ITW), the British Centre for Literary Translation, the CWA, and assorted others, CrimeFest succeeds in putting on an excellent show. Among the particular highlights was my meeting Kati Hiekkapelto as well as Hans Olav Lahlum, whose English-language debuts--The Hummingbird and The Human Flies, respectively--have generated considerable interest among readers here in the UK. I also enjoyed thanking outgoing CWA chair Alison Joseph for the hard work she put in during her tenure in that post, and welcoming incoming chair L.C. (Len) Tyler. Deserving of a word of appreciation, too, is the often eclectic array of panel moderators, this year including Irish writer-critic Ruth Dudley Edwards and Barry Forshaw, who was pretty much everywhere at this event, presenting (with notable panache) some of the key names on the international edge of Euro Noir, such as Italy’s Roberto Costantini, Norwegian author Jǿrn Lier Horst (who won the 2013 Glass Key Award and the 2014 Martin Beck Award for his breathless thriller, The Hunting Dogs, Englishman Michael Ridpath (who has changed direction from his bestselling financial thrillers to a crime series set in Iceland), and the legendary Gunnar Staalesen.

The day finally wound down with publisher Hodder & Stoughton’s party introducing its stable of crime-fiction writers, followed swiftly by the announcement of shortlisted authors for five Dagger Awards to be given out on June 30 by the CWA. Not surprisingly, considering the crowd, those names were celebrated with a prominent clinking of glasses all around. Afterward, I joined Rozovsky and a cabal of writers with an equally parallaxed view of reality for a very amusing dinner.

Saturday, May 16: This proved to be an especially challenging day, as its schedule crammed in not merely two parallel tracks of panel presentations, but three. Again, things got started with the introduction of more debut wordsmiths, this time stage-managed by Laura Wilson (The Wrong Girl), winner of the 2008 Ellis Peters Historical Award. Topics under discussion on Saturday included police procedurals, the changing face of fictional espionage, rural menaces, the horror end of the crime-fiction genre, and socio-political themes. Other interesting sessions were John Curran’s look back at 125 years of Agatha Christie’s renown in the genre, with Sophie Hannah and Mathew Prichard; an examination of the supernatural or weird end of this field, with Kevin Wignall holding order amongst authors A.K. Benedict, Oscar de Muriel, J.F. Penn, and Mark Roberts; and a curious investigation into the gray line that divides the gritty from the gratuitous, with Andrew Taylor riding herd over fellow writers Felix Francis, Helen Fitzgerald, Steve Mosby, and Nev Fountain (the last of whom explored “non-politically correct” vernacular used in literature to describe the darker-skinned members of society, such as myself).

(Right) Maj Sjöwall, photographed by Peter Rozovsky.

On offer, too, were a couple of keynote events: Kerridge’s onstage interview with Catherine Aird, winner of the CWA’s 2015 Diamond Dagger, and Lee Child’s conversation with Maj Sjöwall. The queue into that latter event was absolutely packed, because those “in the know” understood the significance of the 10 Martin Beck thrillers, penned during the 1960s and ’70s by Sjöwall and her husband, Per Wahlöö. Let me just say, it was a fascinating hour we spent listing to Child and Sjöwall talk about the Beck books and Scandinavian crime fiction, in general. Due to the event’s significance, I recorded it on video; you can watch it all by clicking here.

So busy was Saturday, that I only survived it because I stoked up on a gourmet breakfast, and then darted from panel to panel, looking like a man trapped in a giant array of elevators and choices. There was no time at all to visit the hotel’ s pool and sauna/steam room, which had become rituals of my lunchtime breaks; instead, I engaged my brain with the plentiful insights on offer.

We closed out this most engaging day with a drinks reception kindly sponsored by The Dark Pages, a British Web site featuring “breaking news from the crime scene,” and then moved on to CrimeFest’s gala awards dinner. Our toastmaster for this occasion was the witty James Runcie, author of The Grantchester Mysteries, but we were also treated to an impromptu speech by Lee Child, who thanked organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey, along with the rest of their team for the hard work they had deployed to make this weekend so special. Then Child handed the microphone back to Runcie, and five awards for excellence in the crime-fiction field were presented.

As per official CrimeFest policy, after dinner we all retreated to the hotel bar to toast that evening’s award winners, along with the other honored nominees. By this point we were feeling quite proud of the genre, which--with the exception of children’s fiction--represents the most popular end of book publishing these days.

CrimeFest organizers Adrian Muller and Myles Allfrey.

Sunday, May 17: Many of us greeted this morning with large black coffees and handfuls of aspirin before setting off for yet another Debut Authors panel, again managed by uncommonly early riser Laura Wilson. Her event was followed closely by presentations about the appeal of short stories, tales that push the boundaries of crime fiction, and legal thrillers. Oh, and critic Kerridge took to the stage to interview James Runcie. Unfortunately, there was no CrimeFest Criminal Mastermind tournament this year, as the usual organizer, Maxim Jakubowski, had a conflict in his schedule and there weren’t enough braves souls willing to test the depths of their crime-fiction knowledge.

Maybe next year …

Coming up on the docket of major crime-fiction conventions are ThrillerFest (July 7-11 in New York City), the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (July 1-19 in Harrogate, England), Boucheron 2015 (October 8-11 in Raleigh, North Carolina), and Magna Cum Murder (October 30-November 1 in Indianapolis, Indiana). I am particularly interested in Bouchercon this year, because together with Kerry Hammond, I’m involved in the programming of that event. It should be lots of fun, and Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce promises to attend. I’d probably better start getting in shape now for all the imbibing and boisterous camaraderie to come!

Below are a few more photos taken at CrimeFest 2015.

Euro Noir panel (left to right): Barry Forshaw, Roberto Costantini, Gunnar Staalesen, Michael Ridpath, and Jørn Lier Horst.

Doug Johnston, Helen Fitzgerald, and Stuart Neville.

Ali Karim and Lee Child enjoy a much-needed break.

Shots critic Ayo Onatade with author Donna Moore.

CrimeFest attendees wait to hear which authors and books have been shortlisted for the CWA’s 2015 Dagger Awards.

Authors Alexandra Sokoloff and Craig Robertson.

(With the exception of Peter Rozovsky’s Maj Sjöwall shot, all other photos in this post are © 2015 by Ali Karim.)

Friday, May 29, 2015

Prizes Aplenty in Canada and Maine

During an event last evening at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, Crime Writers of Canada announced the winners of its 2015 Arthur Ellis Awards, highlighting “excellence in Canadian crime writing.”

Best Novel:
Plague, by C.C. Humphreys (Doubleday Canada)

Also nominated: Cold Mourning, by Brenda Chapman (Dundurn Press); None So Blind, by Barbara Fradkin (Dundurn Press); No Known Grave, by Maureen Jennings (McClelland & Stewart); and Killing Pilgrim, by Alen Mattich (House of Anansi)

Best First Novel:
Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows (Dundurn Press)

Also nominated: A Quiet Kill, by Janet Brons (Touchwood); Windigo Fire, by M.H. Callway (Seraphim); No Worst, There Is None, by Eve McBride (Dundurn Press); and Last of the Independents, by Sam Wiebe (Dundurn Press)

Best Novella:
A Knock on the Door, by Jas. R. Petrin (Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, April 2014)

Also nominated: The Boom Room, by Rick Blechta (Orca); Juba Good, by Vicki Delany (Orca); and The Dragon Head of Hong Kong, by Ian Hamilton (House of Anansi)

Best Short Story:
Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood (from Stone Mattress: Nine Stories, by Margaret Atwood; McClelland & Stewart)

Also nominated: Hook, Line and Sinker,” by Melodie Campbell (NorthWord); Therapy,” by Peter Clement (Belgrave House); First Impressions,” by Madona Skaff (from The Whole She-Bang 2: 24 Stories by Sisters in Crime Canada, edited by Janet Costello; Toronto Sisters in Crime); and Writers Block,” by Kevin P. Thornton (from World Enough and Crime, edited by Donna Carrick; Carrick Publishing)

Best Book in French:
Bondrée, by Andrée Michaud (Editions Québec Amérique)

Also nominated: Jack: Une enquête de Joseph Laflamme, by Hervé Gagnon (Expression noir/Groupe librex); Meurtre à l’hôtel Despréaux, by Maryse Rouy (Édition Druide); and Repentirs, by Richard Ste Marie (Alire)

Best Juvenile/Young Adult Book:
Dead Man’s Switch, by Sigmund Brouwer (Harvest House)

Also nominated: Face-Off, by Michael Betcherman (Penguin Canada); The Voice Inside My Head, by S.J. Laidlaw (Tundra); About That Night, by Norah McClintock (Orca); and The Bodies We Wear, by Jeyn Roberts (Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Best Non-fiction Book:
The Massey Murder, by Charlotte Gray (HarperCollins)

Also nominated: Being Uncle Charlie, by Bob Deasy, with Mark Ebner (Penguin Random House); Innocence on Trial: The Framing of Ivan Henry, by Joan McEwen (Heritage House); Life Real Loud: John Lefebvre, Neteller, and the Revolution in Online Gambling, by Bill Reynolds (ECW Press); and Extreme Mean, by Paula Todd (McClelland & Stewart)

Unhanged Arthur (for best unpublished first crime novel):
Strange Things Done, by Elle Wild

Also nominated: Rum Luck, by Ryan Aldred; Full Curl, by Dave Butler; Crisis Point, by Dwayne Clayden; and Afghan Redemption, by Bill Prentice

In addition, as Bill Selnes reports in Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan, “Sylvia McConnell received the Derrick Murdoch Award. She began RendezVous Crime in 1998 and published 80 crime novels over the next 13 years which were written by Canadians and set in Canada.”

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

* * *

Also handed out during a well-attended May 28 ceremony were this year’s Maine Literary Awards. There were 17 categories of nominees, one of which was crime fiction. Kate Flora took home that commendation for And Grant You Peace (Five Star), the fourth book in her Joe Burgess mystery series. Other contenders for this prize: Paul Doiron for The Bone Orchard; Vaughn C. Hardacker for Sniper; and D.A. Keeley for Bitter Crossing.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pussy Galore Makes Her Comeback

It’s official: Anthony Horowitz’s James Bond continuation novel, due for release on both sides of the Atlantic come September 8, will be titled Trigger Mortis. Ian Fleming Publications (IFP) made that declaration, via Twitter, shortly after midnight UK time, on May 28--which, by no coincidence whatsoever, happens to be Agent 007 creator Ian Fleming’s birthday (he was born in 1908). The book’s British cover is posted on the left.

The Spy Command notes that this novel “is based, in part, on an outline Ian Fleming wrote in the 1950s for a never-made television series. Horowitz’s story apparently is set in 1959.” That blog further quotes Horowitz, who is known for having created the popular British TV mystery series Foyle’s War and for penning last year’s historical thriller, Moriarty, as saying Trigger Mortis is set two weeks after Goldfinger (which was published in 1959, but set earlier) and that Pussy Galore is present. ‘I was so glad that I was allowed to set the book two weeks after my favorite Bond novel, Goldfinger, … and I’m delighted that Pussy Galore is back. It was great fun revisiting the most famous Bond Girl of all--although she is by no means the only dangerous lady in Trigger Mortis.”

Additional info about this novel comes from The Book Bond, which tells that “Horowitz places Bond in the middle of the Soviet-American Space Race as the United States prepares for a critical rocket launch. … As well as Pussy Galore, the book features: brand-new Bond Girl Jeopardy Lane; [Sin Jai-Seong], a sadistic, scheming Korean adversary hell-bent on vengeance; and breathless, globe-trotting adventure. Uniquely among latter-day Bond authors, Horowitz has included original Ian Fleming material: a treatment for ‘Murder on Wheels,’ an episode of a [007] television series that was never made. Fleming’s text sees Bond in the high-octane world of motor racing and it is his never-used plot that kicks off the action of Trigger Mortis.”

I’m particularly interested one of Horowitz’s passing comments: “It was always my intention to go back to the true Bond, which is to say, the Bond that Fleming created …” Does that mean his fair Pussy will be the lesbian former trapeze artist who featured in Fleming’s original novel, Goldfinger, said to be “the only woman who runs a gang in America,” or will she be the leader of a group of daring women aviators, as played by Honor Blackman in the 1964 Sean Connery film inspired by that book? We shall see.

Meanwhile, it’s been mentioned that Trigger Mortis is not a new book title. In fact, it was the name of pulp writer Frank Kane’s 1958 novel, his 12th to star New York City gumshoe Johnny Liddell. Publisher Prologue Books, which has made Kane’s Trigger Mortis available in e-book format, synopsizes that earlier work’s plot:
Johnny Liddell, private investigator, is not accustomed to a quiet life. But life was never less quiet for him than after he was called in by Celeste Pierce, a redhead who is giving several famous bosomy blondes a run for their money. Everything was going swimmingly for Celeste until she was blackmailed by Bare Facts, a magazine which had some bare facts about Celeste from her girl-in-the-pie period. She is willing to pay for pictures and films, and Johnny sets off to get them back. Unfortunately for Johnny’s peace of mind, impetuous Celeste goes off herself to see Murray Carter, the unattractive publisher of the unattractive periodical. Next day she is found dead in his apartment, and someone has obviously lent a helping hand since there is a bullet hole in the back of his skull. Johnny is given forty-eight hours and a free hand by the police to check on other blackmailers of Bare Facts. His search leads him everywhere from a Harlem dope joint to a boxers’ hangout, with trouble all the way. He finally solves the riddle, no thanks to anybody but himself.
Kane’s yarn might have served equally well as the basis for a Bond adventure. There’s no shortage of willowy flesh in its pages, either.

(The cover shown above from Kane’s Trigger Mortis appeared on the 1959 Dell edition of that novel, with artwork by Victor Kalin.)

READ MORE:Trigger Happy” (Pulp International).

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Taking a Shine to Summer Crime

Although summer doesn’t officially begin this year in the northern hemisphere until June 21, Seattle’s recent epidemic of balmy weather already has me thinking about days spent on my front porch or back patio, the sun in my face and a brand-new book in hand. The result is my Kirkus Reviews column this week, focusing primarily on eight forthcoming crime novels, written by Don Winslow, Lori Rader-Day, Linwood Barclay, and others. You’ll find that piece here.

And sometime early next week, I should be able to post a more extensive (perhaps downright intimidating) list in The Rap Sheet of crime, mystery, and thriller titles being prepared for release over the next three months. Keep an eye out for it.

Holmes in Hot Water

Mr. Holmes, a film directed by Bill Condon, starring Ian McKellen, and based on the 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, has been hit with a lawsuit. From Entertainment Weekly:
The plot has thickened for Mr. Holmes, the upcoming film based on the later life of the world’s most famous detective, and not in a good way. The estate of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle is suing Miramax, Roadside Attractions, director Bill Condon, author Mitch Cullin, and Penguin Random House for copyright infringement.

The film, starring Ian McKellen in the titular role, is focused on Sherlock Holmes’ later years as a retired man contemplating his life while getting involved in an unsolved mystery.

In the legal documents obtained by
EW, it is stated that the first 50 of Conan Doyle’s short stories and novels are in the public domain, but the last 10 are still protected by copyright in the United States. Those stories are the ones that “develop the details of Holmes’ fictional retirement and change and develop the character of Holmes himself.” That’s a problem because the estate is asserting that Cullin’s book A Slight Trick of the Mind, which the film Mr. Holmes is based on, is based on these copyrighted stories.
The film is set for a July 17 release. Read the full story here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Last Bookaneer, by Matthew Pearl (Penguin), imagines the world’s most notorious literary pirate of the 1890s, Pen Davenport, setting off for the South Pacific island of Samoa with his more wide-eyed aide, Fergins, to filch a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s last novel and get it into print before a new international treaty curtails their lucrative, if illicit trade. However, they aren’t the only “bookaneers” in feverish pursuit of the dying Stevenson’s work. The Fatal Flame (Putnam), the final book in Lyndsay Faye’s trilogy about 1840s New York City “copper star” Timothy Wilde, finds our hero trying to protect a corrupt Tammany Hall official under threat by a far-reaching arsonist, and also help an orphaned girl in whose enigmatic memories may hide the identity of the person or persons responsible for Gotham’s frightening recent blazes.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

Soliciting Legal Opinions

Late last week the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal and the University of Alabama Law School announced the finalists for the 2015 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. They are:

My Sister’s Grave, by Robert Dugoni (Thomas & Mercer)
Terminal City, by Linda Fairstein (Dutton)
The Secret of Magic, by Deborah Johnson (Putnam)

As the Library of Congress’ In Custodia Legis blog explains, this annual award for legal fiction--authorized by Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird)--“is given to a book-length fictional work that ‘best exemplifies the role of lawyers in society, and their power to effect change.’ Past winners include The Confession, by John Grisham, The Fifth Witness, by Michael Connelly, Havana Requiem, by Paul Goldstein, and Sycamore Row, by John Grisham.”

The ABA Journal is inviting all readers to select their favorite work from among the three 2015 contenders. Click here to make your opinions known; voting is set to close on Friday, June 5, at 11:59 p.m. “The 2015 prize,” notes the Journal, “will be awarded September 3 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the Library of Congress National Book Festival.”

(Hat tip to Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Number Nine, Number Nine*

It was nine years ago today, on May 22, 2006, that I launched The Rap Sheet as an independent blog, separating it from January Magazine. Ever since, I’ve tried to note anniversaries of that occasion, sometimes in a big way (as I did with birthday No. 1, which spawned my “one book project”) but most often more subtly. Since a ninth birthday seems inevitably overshadowed by expectations of the 10th, I’m going to hold back the party favors and frosted cake until next year. That doesn’t mean, however that I have nothing to say in celebration of today’s milestone--which just happens to coincide with what would have been Arthur Conan Doyle’s 156th birthday (he died in 1930).

Had you asked me during the spring of 2006 whether The Rap Sheet would still be up and running in 2015, I’d probably have thought you barking mad. I assumed back then that the enthusiasm with which I launched this blog would wane over time, that I would take on conflicting editorial responsibilities and have to give up blogging at some point. Instead, I have found in The Rap Sheet a fertile outlet for my literary interests that simply cannot be satisfied in the world of paid journalism. This blog has become the face I present most frequently to the world. I once thought my future might lie not in blogging about books, but instead commenting on U.S. politics (another prime interest of mine). It didn’t take me long to realize, though, that I couldn’t sustain an interest in reporting on politics without being paid well for my efforts, and that I was considerably happier writing about mystery, crime, and thriller fiction. Besides, the people I came into contact with as a books critic (authors, editors, publicists, other reviewers) were of a more pleasant breed than some of those laboring in the political arena. So I put my energies into building up The Rap Sheet, creating a “sister blog” in the book art-oriented Killer Covers, establishing The Rap Sheet’s YouTube page, and taking on the duties as lead crime-fiction blogger for Kirkus Reviews. I still take on freelance journalism projects, but now balance them against what I've decided is my valuable role as a blogger.

I’m quite pleased with the public’s response to The Rap Sheet. According to Blogger software, this site has now exceeded 3 million page views (three times what it had registered by 2011). It has also become a venue for regular paid advertising, won a Spinetingler Award and been nominated twice for Anthony Awards, brought me a landslide of books to enrich my life, and led me to establish friendships within the crime-fiction community that I shall always cherish.

Had I not chosen to experiment with blogging back in 2006, none of this would have happened. I guess I made the right move.

To everyone out there who reads The Rap Sheet, thank you.

* With obvious debts to The Beatles (see here and here).

Recognizing Consistent Talent

Sheesh! I know I’ve been feeling rather out of sorts lately, and have been busy with an editorial project that is taking more time to complete than I’d hoped it would (which explains why there’s recently been a paucity of new postings on this page), but I still don’t understand how I could have missed seeing the announcement of this year’s longlisted nominees for the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger in the Library Award. It was made last week, following an online voting process that began early in the spring, and it seems to have received scant publicity on this side of “the pond.”

Rather than dwell upon my previous blindness to this news, let’s get down to the results. As you probably know already, the Dagger in the Library is presented to authors in appreciation of their body of work, not any individual novel. This year’s 11 nominees (listed in alphabetical order, together with their current UK publishers) are:

Mark Billingham (Little, Brown)
Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)
Christopher Fowler (Transworld)
Elly Griffiths (Quercus)
Elizabeth Haynes (Sphere)
Susan Hill (Vintage)
Peter James (Macmillan)
Simon Kernick (Cornerstone)
Peter May (Quercus)
Phil Rickman (Atlantic)
Tim Weaver (Michael Joseph)

According to the CWA’s news release, finalists for this prize “will be decided by a panel of judges including previous winner Sharon Bolton, CWA Director Lucy Santos, and a group of UK librarians and will be revealed on Monday 8th June, with the winner being announced at the CWA Annual Awards dinner on 30th June.”

I’ll try to keep my eyes open for that news, at least.

Monday, May 18, 2015

TV for Your Bookshelf

I just returned home from a very long day spent helping to paint my brother-in-law’s house (no small job, considering the square-footage of said residence), to see that the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers (IAMTW) has announced this year’s Scribe Award nominees. These prizes “honor licensed works that tie in with other media such as television, movies, gaming, or comic books.” Contenders for 2015 cover a wide range of genres, so I’m not going to post the complete list; instead, click here to find that. Below are only the nominees for Best Original Novel – General. Titles and author names are preceded by the books’ TV series connections.

24: Deadline, by James Swallow (Forge)
Murder She Wrote: Death of a Blue Blood, by Donald Bain (NAL)
Mike Hammer: King of the Weeds, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (Titan)
Homeland: Saul’s Game, by Andrew Kaplan (Morrow)
The Killing: Uncommon Denominator, by Karen Dionne (Titan)

Winners of this year’s Scribe Awards will be declared during Comic-Con in San Diego, California, to be held from July 9 to 12.

Pierce’s Picks

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

The Harvest Man (Putnam), Alex Grecian’s fourth historical thriller about Scotland Yard’s Murder Squad, finds an injured Inspector Walter Day searching for a psychologically haunted killer who carves couple’s faces off their skills, while ex-Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith turns to Victorian London’s criminal fraternity to help find the newly loosed Jack the Ripper. Robert B. Parker’s Kickback, by Ace Atkins (Putnam), has Boston private eye Spenser and his bone-breaking sidekick, Hawk, investigating a judge whose extreme sentences for youthful offenders in an old mill town may be connected to the crooked operators of several private New England prisons.

Click here to see more of this season’s most-wanted books.

It Seems Hedunit

Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day” feature explains the origins of a term Rap Sheet readers know well: “whodunit.”
In 1930, Donald Gordon, a book reviewer for News of Books, needed to come up with something to say about a rather unremarkable mystery novel called Half-Mast Murder. ‘A satisfactory whodunit,’ he wrote. The coinage played fast and loose with spelling and grammar, but whodunit caught on anyway. Other writers tried respelling it who-done-it, and one even insisted on using whodidit, but those sanitized versions lacked the punch of the original and have fallen by the wayside. Whodunit became so popular that by 1939 at least one language pundit had declared it ‘already heavily overworked’ and predicted it would ‘soon be dumped into the taboo bin.’ History has proven that prophecy false, and whodunit is still going strong.
Incidentally, if you’re curious to know more about the novel that started all of this wordplay, Milward Kennedy’s Half-Mast Murder, check out this “forgotten books” review by English novelist Martin Edwards. And click here to see a facsimile of the original cover.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Bringing Out the Prizes in Bristol

Grantchester Mysteries author James Runcie holds forth as the toastmaster at tonight’s CrimeFest “gala awards dinner.”

This third day of CrimeFest 2015 in Bristol, England, found convention-goers turning out in droves to see author Lee Child’s onstage interview with legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall (“One of the best one-on-one interviews that they have ever had at CrimeFest,” pronounced Shots contributor Ayo Onatade). Also crowded, though, was its concluding event: this evening’s presentation of five awards for different sorts of excellence in the genre.

The Audible Sounds of Crime Award (for the best unabridged crime audiobook): The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling); read by Robert Glenister (Little, Brown)

Also nominated: Foxglove Summer, by Ben Aaronovitch; read by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Orion); Personal, by Lee Child; read by Jeff Harding (Penguin); Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz; read by Derek Jacobi and Julian Rhind-Tutt (Orion); Want You Dead, by Peter James; read by Daniel Weyman (Macmillan); Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King; read by Will Patton (Hodder & Stoughton); The Son, by Jo Nesbø; read by Sean Barrett (Penguin); and The Hangman’s Song, by James Oswald; read by Ian Hanmore (Penguin)

E-Dunnit Award (for the best crime fiction e-book): A Colder War, by Charles Cumming (HarperCollins)

Also nominated: No Safe House, by Linwood Barclay (Orion); The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, by Lawrence Block (Orion); Dark Tides, by Chris Ewan (Faber & Faber); Natchez Burning, by Greg Illes (HarperCollins); Hollow Mountain, by Thomas Mogford (Bloomsbury); Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Thomas Sweterlitsch (Headline); and The Silent Boy, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)

The Goldsboro Last Laugh Award (for the best humorous crime novel): Crooked Herring, by L.C. Tyler (Allison & Busby)

Also nominated: The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, by Lawrence Block (Orion); Crime Always Pays, by Declan Burke (Severn House); Bryant & May: The Bleeding Heart, by Christopher Fowler (Bantam); Kill Your Boss, by Shane Kuhn (Little, Brown); and The Accident, by Chris Pavone (Faber & Faber)

The H.R.F. Keating Award (for the best biographical or critical book related to crime fiction): Late Victorian Crime Fiction in the Shadows of Sherlock, by Clare Clarke (Palgrave)

Also nominated: Dime Novels and the Roots of American Detective Fiction, by Pamela Bedore (Palgrave); Nordic Noir, by Barry Forshaw (Pocket Essentials); Euro Noir, by Barry Forshaw (No Exit Press); Crime Scene: Britain & Ireland, by John Martin (Five Leaves); and A Very British Murder, by Lucy Worsley (BBC Books)

Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year:
The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, translated by Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

Also nominated: The Hummingbird, by Kati Hiekkapelto, translated by David Hackston (Arcadia Books; Finland); The Hunting Dogs, by Jørn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press; Norway); Reykjavik Nights, by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker; Iceland); The Human Flies, by Hans Olav Lahlum, translated by Kari Dickson (Mantle; Norway); and Falling Freely, As If in a Dream, by Leif G.W. Persson, translated by Paul Norlen (Doubleday; Sweden)

Congratulations to all of tonight’s winners!

(Photograph © 2015 by Ali Karim)

READ MORE:The Best Things About CrimeFest 2015
(Crime Fiction Lover).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Daggers Take Aim

CrimeFest 2015 kicked off yesterday in Bristol, England, and will continue into early Sunday afternoon. Tomorrow evening is expected to bring the announcement of who has won four awards dispensed annually during this convention. But tonight’s festivities concluded with news about shortlisted contenders for five other prizes, to be given out on June 30 by the UK Crime Writers’ Association.

The International Dagger:
Falling Freely, As If in a Dream, by Leif G.W. Persson,
translated by Paul Norlen (Transworld)
Camille, by Pierre Lemaitre, translated by Frank Wynne (Quercus)
Cobra, by Deon Meyer, translated by (Hodder & Stoughton)
Arab Jazz, by Karim Miské, translated by Sam Gordon (MacLehose)
The Invisible Guardian, by Dolores Redondo, translated by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins)
Into a Raging Blaze, by Andreas Norman, translated by
Ian Giles (Quercus)

The Short Story Dagger:
“Apocrypha,” by Richard Lange (from Sweet Nothing: Stories, by Richard Lange; Mulholland Press)
“Red Eye,” by Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane (from Face Off, edited by David Baldacci; Sphere)
“The Hunter,” by Dashiell Hammett (from The Hunter and Other Stories; No Exit Press)
“Sweet Nothing,” by Richard Lange (from Sweet Nothing)
“Juror 8,” by Stuart Neville (from OxCrimes; Profile)
“The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us,” by George Pelecanos
(from OxCrimes)

The Non-fiction Dagger:
In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile,
by Dan Davies (Quercus)
A Kim Jong-Il Production, by Paul Fischer (Penguin)
Ghettoside: Investigating a Homicide Epidemic, by Jill Leovy
(Bodley Head)
Gun Baby Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of the Gun,
by Iain Overton (Canongate)
One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, by Ǻsne Seierstad (Virago)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,
by Bryan Stevenson (Scribe)

The Endeavour Historical Dagger:
Havana Sleeping, by Martin Davies (Hodder & Stoughton)
Lamentation, by C. J. Sansom (Mantle)
The Man from Berlin, by Luke McCallin (No Exit Press)
The Seeker, by S.G. MacLean (Quercus)
The Silent Boy, by Andrew Taylor (HarperCollins)
The Taxidermist’s Daughter, by Kate Mosse (Orion)

The Debut Dagger:
Dark Chapter, by Winnie M. Li
Last of the Soho Legends, by Greg Keen
The Ice Coffin, by Jill Sawyer
The Pure Drop, by Nigel Robbins
Lock Me In, by Kate Simants

In addition, Diamond Dagger recipient Catherine Aird presented Lesley Mace with the Margery Allingham Short Story Award for “Game Over.”

Doing Things the Wright Way

It was last week that I heard the news: Edward Wright, an Arkansas-born former metropolitan newspaper editor and the award-winning author of five mystery novels, died on May 1 at a Southern California hospital. He was 75 years old, brought down by complications of lymphoma.

Wright had spent three decades in journalism, including 20 years at the Los Angeles Times, working mostly on that paper’s foreign desk, before switching careers. In 2001 he won the Debut Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association for his then-unpublished, 1940s-set novel, Clea’s Moon (released two years later on both sides of the Atlantic). It introduced readers to John Ray Horn, who had escaped a boyhood in northern Arkansas and an abusive preacher father to become cowboy hero “Sierra Lane” in a succession of cut-rate Western films for Medallion Studios. But his assault on the dandified son of Medallion’s chief exec earned him a two-year prison stint. Now, unhappily divorced and blacklisted among L.A. moviemakers, Horn keeps himself out of poverty by undertaking occasional debt collections for his former Native American co-star, casino owner Joseph Mad Crow. Clea’s Moon found Horn looking for his ex-stepdaughter, whose involvement in the “dirty pictures” racket might have led to her being kidnapped. In it’s initial sequel, While I Disappear (2004; titled The Silver Face in the UK), Horn struggled to figure out who strangled his once-beautiful female movie co-star, Rose Galen--a quest that led him back into a hushed-up scandal of the 1920s. And in Red Sky Lament (2006), Wright’s disgraced protagonist tried to help a screenwriter targeted by zealots bent on purging Communists from Hollywood.

In addition to his Debut Dagger win, Wright picked up the Private Eye Writers of America’s 2005 Best P.I. Hardcover Novel prize for While I Disappear, and Red Sky Lament scored the 2006 Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award. Yet Wright chose to veer away from his John Ray Horn series in order to compose his first standalone, Damnation Falls (2007). Its story about a scandalized Chicago journalist who returns to his Tennessee hometown, hoping to help a childhood buddy reignite his political career (but instead stirring some very dangerous secrets from their slumber), captured the 2008 Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel. Two years later, Wright’s From Blood--about a rebellious young woman whose college-teacher parents are murdered, their deaths somehow related to 1960s anti-war activism--saw print in Britain but didn’t find a U.S. publisher until 2012.

Having read and very much enjoyed Wright’s three Horn mysteries, I arranged to interview the author in 2006. I e-mailed him a primary set of questions about his work and life, and then some weeks later followed up with a shorter selection of queries, some of which asked for more detail about things he’d told me already. My plan was to gather all of that material together and publish it in an online magazine to which I often contributed, but my workload back then was pretty onerous, and I was having issues with the publication in which I intended to place the Wright piece. One thing led to another, months of distractions ensued, and I eventually abandoned the project, much to my regret (and to the author’s disgruntlement).

But when I read that Edward Wright had passed away (leaving behind Cathy, his psychotherapist wife of 22 years), I decided to dig out the results of our exchange and finally post them here, in slightly edited form. Reading through this lengthy interview, I am reminded of Wright’s conscientiousness in explaining the facets of his life, and what I thought was his remarkable modesty about the successes he’d enjoyed. We covered a great deal of ground during our online discussion, from his Arkansas boyhood to his days as a nuclear weapons officer with the U.S. Navy, his start as a big-city journalist in Chicago to his fondness for the tales of Raymond Chandler and Robert Heinlein, his unsteady beginnings as a fictionist to his hopes of creating a life in which he penned series mysteries and standalone thrillers. Because this interview was conducted in 2006, Wright refers to Damnation Falls by its original title, Redemption Falls.

J. Kingston Pierce: Where in Arkansas were you born?

Edward Wright: In Hot Springs, an old-time resort known for its scenery, its hot-water baths, and its on-and-off casino gambling and horse racing--not to mention favorite son Bill Clinton. In the old days it drew gangsters down from New York and Chicago; today it’s a vacation and convention spot. I lived there until I went off to college.

JKP: Tell me a bit about your growing up in Arkansas. I think many people have a distorted view of what an Arkansas boyhood is like. They think it was either overwhelmingly idyllic, or backwoods and racist. Set us straight.

EW: I’m sure parts of my growing-up would sound quaint and rural to some--camping with the Boy Scouts each summer, duck hunting on Lake Ouachita (pronounced WASH-i-taw, for all you outlanders), taking dates to the drive-in for burgers and malts. But Hot Springs was a curious mixture of small town and cosmopolitan melting pot, because of all the tourists and retirees from elsewhere. And of course there was the gambling, which gave the town a whiff of corruption that it’s only now outgrowing. (Today the horse racing is all that remains.) My best friend’s father was a bookmaker in one of the technically illegal bookie joints along Central Avenue. For years, one of our most famous residents was Owney Madden, the New York mobster who once ran the Cotton Club in Harlem and later lived out a peaceful retirement in Hot Springs. My mother, an ardent golfer, once saw him playing, shirtless, in a foursome at the golf course and reported breathlessly that his chest was stitched with old bullet holes.

On the question of race, it’s true that Arkansas, like all the South, has had to climb out from under the burden of its past. And as [William] Faulkner keeps telling us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I like to think the good people of the state can learn from that past and are eager to move into the future. It’s easy to stereotype a place like Arkansas. As one example, the public schools have tended not to rank very high. But one of my high-school friends later went on to run Duke University, and another became commanding officer of the battleship Missouri. And Clinton didn’t turn out too badly, unless you happen to be a Republican. So we must have learned something useful.

For a good account of growing up in Hot Springs, read Shirley Abbott’s The Bookmaker’s Daughter. Her father was a bookie there too.

JKP: What kind of people were your parents? Do you come with the same sort of familial baggage that many novelists carry?

EW: I think almost everyone carries baggage. Writers may be a little more articulate on the subject, that’s all. Here’s my version: I was lucky to have two loving parents, but I was also aware early on that they had problems to wrestle with and that they thought it best not to talk much about them. Later on, I was able to fill in most of the blanks. One was the suicide of my grandfather when my father was very young; another was my older half-sister’s mental illness. My dad, a hardware salesman, was troubled through much of his adult life, was briefly hospitalized, and--as a mark of that less enlightened time--underwent electroshock therapy. When he died at age 80, I think it’s fair to say he had not seen a lot of happiness in his long life.

I can barely remember my half-sister, since she spent so much time in and out of mental institutions. Finally on her own--although she shouldn’t have been--she left home for good. Years later, in her 40s, she died of a combination of drugs and alcohol.

All of which sounds a little like Eugene O’Neill. But my younger sister and I came through it fairly well, I think, partly because our mother--a good-hearted woman with a lot of native wisdom--did her best to shield us from a lot of it. And if I learned anything from all those years, it’s that fresh air is a lot more effective than secrecy. One of the themes that has crept into my books is that of fathers and sons. It’s been a minor theme up until now, but in my next book [Redemption Falls] it will be a lot more visible.

JKP: Were there any people who, early on, convinced you that your career calling was to become a writer?

EW: Sure: Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Zane Grey, Mickey Spillane (don’t laugh). But I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought they, and a hundred others, were just inspiring me to READ. For years, all through grade school and high school and college, I just wanted to read. The writing bug didn’t bite me until much later, when I finally understood that all those writers had planted the seed years earlier.

JKP: Heaven forfend that I should laugh at your note about Mickey Spillane inspiring you to write! He certainly occupies a rightful place in the crime fiction-writing pantheon, and one of my longtime favorite authors in this genre, Max Allan Collins, is a big promoter of Spillane’s. But do you believe ol’ Mickey hasn’t been given his proper due as a developer of the American crime story?

EW: No, actually I see him given a lot of credit. For a long time, he had the image of someone who wrote for the semi-literates. But now I think he’s become more respectable. People see him as a bridge between the pulp writers and the detective novelists, with a lean and very readable writing style. You don’t look to him for subtlety. But when you’re 14 years old and ready to move beyond boys’ adventure stories, there’s Mike Hammer, busting down doors and cracking heads. And there’s Velda too, the private secretary of our adolescent dreams. Let us not forget Velda.

The USS Rowan, on which Wright once served.

JKP: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

EW: I’m glad to say I’ve never had a truly horrible job. Even some of the roughest ones--pouring concrete and building bridges over remote creeks in the humid Arkansas summer for the U.S. Forest Service, or hauling boxes of pipe fittings around the basement of a hardware store--had silver linings, usually in the form of the people I worked with. Probably the job that got to me the worst was nuclear weapons officer aboard the USS Rowan. It was the Cold War Navy, my ship had just been selected to carry nukes, and I was put in charge of them, with all that the job involved--safety, security, training, record-keeping, maintenance. Nothing in the rule-happy U.S. military gets so much attention, worry, and obsessiveness as the care and feeding of nuclear weapons. Being one of their keepers can make you old before your time. Lucky I was still in my 20s, so I had lots of room to age.

JKP: How does one acquire the job of nuclear weapons officer on board a Gearing-class destroyer, which is what I believe the USS Rowan is. Did you actually volunteer for that position? If not, what made someone else think you were the right guy to handle nukes? (Yikes!) And for how long did you carry out that assignment?

EW: Kind of a long story. I was working as the Rowan’s anti-submarine warfare officer when the ship went through a major modernization. Nine months later, she came out with a bunch of new weapons systems, including something called ASROC, an anti-sub rocket that can carry a small nuclear warhead. Since that system was part of my responsibility, it was natural for the skipper to send me to nuclear weapons training school and hand me the “collateral duty” of nuclear weapons officer to go along with my anti-sub job. We were actually nuclear-capable for only about the last six months of my hitch. Destroyers are small ships, with a handful of officers. Everybody gets more than one job. At one time or another, I was also gunnery officer, legal officer, and assistant navigator.

JKP: Did you say you left Arkansas only to attend Vanderbilt University in Tennessee? Tell me about that college experience.

EW: I spent a year at Hendrix College in Arkansas first, but then I began to get that English-major gleam in my eye and knew that I should move on. I landed at Vanderbilt because of the reputation of its English department, where memories of Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and others were still fresh. During one of Warren’s visits back to the campus, I tracked him down and got him to inscribe my copy of All the King’s Men. Donald Davidson, one of the poets of the Fugitive movement, was there, and I studied under him. I still remember some of his comments about the poetry of Yeats, Eliot, and Frost, and the sound of his voice as he read some of his own lines from “Lee in the Mountains” in his gentle Tennessee accent.

JKP: Am I right, that you went into the U.S. Navy after finishing at Vanderbilt? Why? And how did that experience help shape you?

EW: The draft was hanging over all of us back then. I had no taste for graduate school right away and wasn’t married, so I had to do something. The Navy was an easy choice, since I’d read [Joseph] Conrad and had a yearning to go to sea. Sometime around graduation, a friend and I went down to the Navy recruiting office in Nashville and said we wanted to sign up. Turned out we had walked in the wrong door. “Y’all are college boys,” the recruiter said with some amusement. “You want to be officers. Go on upstairs.” Eventually we found the right place, signed the papers, and a few months later I was going through officer training in Newport, Rhode Island, in the dead of winter. After four months, the Navy spit me out into the fleet as a newly commissioned ensign.

The military’s never fun, but I like to look at the bright side. No one ever fired a shot at me. I learned a few things about leadership and being organized. I learned to navigate by the stars and how to dock a 2,200-ton destroyer alongside a pier. I learned how to get up at midnight to stand a four-hour watch on the bridge, then go below for two more hours’ sleep before reveille. I saw nuclear explosions light up the skies over a tiny dot near the equator called Christmas Island.

And best of all, I got to go to sea--to Hawaii and Kingston [Jamaica], Curacao, and Cartagena, and lots of other places. Conrad was right. The ocean gets to you. I remember one night somewhere in the South Pacific, when I had just gotten off watch and wasn’t sleepy. I went up to the bow and leaned over, listening to the rush of the water. I was alone. Behind me were the running lights on the superstructure, but ahead was mostly blackness. All I could see at first were the stars, including the Southern Cross. Then I noticed that the bow wake gave off its own light, from billions of tiny phosphorescent creatures disturbed by the passage of the ship. We were making our own light in the water. It was magical.

JKP: How long were you in the Navy?

EW: Three years, most of which I spent aboard the Rowan, with occasional temporary duty in places like Philadelphia, Key West, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The Rowan was home-ported in San Diego, and for an Arkansas boy who hadn’t yet seen much of the world, Southern California was a wondrous place. Most of my jobs involved weapons of one kind or another. Before the aforementioned nukes came along to bedevil me, I spent a lot of time working on what the Navy calls anti-submarine warfare. ASW is a fascinating kind of chess match between surface ships and submarines, with each adversary trying to out-game the other, the subs hiding in the depths and the ships trying to smoke them out.

JKP: Did you consider making the military a career?

EW: No, for all that I got out of the Navy experience, I never considered staying in. I’m too much of a civilian at heart.

JKP: We hear a lot about Guantánamo Bay these days, thanks to the incarceration of alleged “war on terror” participants. Do you have any distinct recollections of that place?

EW: Back then, the Navy considered it tough duty to be stationed there because it was so isolated, and just on the other side of the fence was Fidel’s Cuba, where we couldn’t exactly go for R&R. So, to make Gitmo duty bearable, the Navy set up all the comforts of home--golf course, movie theater, bowling alley, swimming pool. The last time I hit a golf ball was at Guantánamo Bay. My memories, as you can guess, are pleasant ones. The memories of some of those living there now will be very different.

JKP: There’s been a lot of talk, in these years since the start of the Iraq war and its drain on the U.S. military, about renewing the draft. And some have said that it might be good to have a less homogeneous mix of people in the military, rather than just the gung-ho volunteers; that more diversity in the ranks might help people come out of the military with a more well-rounded view of the world. What do you think about that?

EW: I’m happy with a volunteer military today, as long as it produces the numbers we need. To bring in people who want to serve, the military has been forced to remold itself into an attractive career choice, and that’s a good thing. In emergencies, though--and the time may not be too far away--we’ll need a draft. Ideally it won’t be the discriminatory Vietnam-era draft that took blacks from the cities and whites from the farms and left college students alone. It’ll be more inclusive. In Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein came up with the notion that military service should be a prerequisite for the right to vote. Sometimes I think the old curmudgeon might have been onto something.

JKP: Were you a big Heinlein fan? I read a lot of his books in high school and college, and I’m glad to have done so.

EW: I discovered him in junior high, and he was a hugely entertaining writer. All of his characters seemed smart and naturally funny, and I liked the way the dialogue snapped and crackled and moved the plot along. Then, later, I saw that some of his books actually expressed ideas. One of them, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, recasts the notion of the American Revolution in future terms, with moon colonists trying to throw off the weight of government from Earth. Starship Troopers raises the question of the importance of the military in a free society. “Universe” is a wonderful adventure story set in deep space about the opening of the mind to knowledge (at least I think that’s what it’s about.). And then there’s The Puppet Masters, which may or may not have a deeper message but which is out-and-out the most entertaining SF thriller I’ve ever read. Too bad the movie stunk.

JKP: I understand that after the Navy, you headed to Chicago’s Northwestern University to study journalism. Is that right? And did you go to Northwestern already figuring that a life in the media was your destiny? How deep was your interest in journalism?

EW: Sometime during my Navy hitch, I came up with journalism as a practical way of applying whatever I’d picked up in that notoriously impractical B.A. in English. So I went for a master’s in journalism at Northwestern. It turned out to be a pretty good choice. The journalism school there was of the practical sort, with no master’s thesis, just a lot of fairly demanding courses. Toughest for me was something called “Reporting of Public Affairs,” in which we were cast adrift in the streets of Chicago and required to cover the news--police, fire department, schools, hospitals, city government, whatever our beat happened to be--right alongside the reporters for the city’s four daily newspapers, then come back to our “newsroom” and write up the day’s news. The learning curve, as one can imagine, was steep. Since we didn’t have real press credentials, we often had to talk our way past police lines, for instance, or into the mayor’s press room. In that kind of situation, you learn to deal with rejection real fast. You learn to fail, then try again. You learn that journalism is more about shoe leather than about writing editorials in an ivory tower.

JKP: How eye-opening was it to you to go from Arkansas to the Windy City? What were your impressions of Chicago?

EW: I had almost no image of Chicago before I went there. I was surprised to hear that it was on a lake, since for a time I’d imagined it as an enormous stockyard sitting out on the prairie. I knew all the clichés--Al Capone, the big fire, The Front Page--but none of the realities. When I first arrived, I found it a little overwhelming. Unlike any other place I’d lived, it’s a true city, with a dense downtown and a fast-paced street life. I was lost for a while, and the people seemed distant. The climate is hard to take--brutal in the winter, hot and muggy in the summer. Then, little by little, I settled in. I got a job and took an apartment in an area called Old Town, in a building dating back to the early 1900s. My place was a small, fourth-floor walkup, with a rickety balcony overlooking a courtyard and a view of the downtown skyline. Everything I needed, it seemed, was within walking distance. A block away was the Second City cabaret, and one of the second-floor apartments in my building was used by some of the performers. For a while, the mailbox read “Belushi,” and for a while after he left, it said “Candy.” I slowly got to know the city. I made friends. And pretty soon I found that I liked Chicago. A lot.

JKP: You now live in L.A. But do you visit Chicago periodically? Do you miss it? And what’s the one thing every tourist in Chicago has to see?

EW: I’ve been back twice, the first time to visit friends, the second to attend Bouchercon last September [2005]. I miss the city-ness of the place, the real skyline, the world-class architecture, the neighborhoods made for walking, the parks, the lake, the deep-dish pizza. I’d long wanted my wife to see Chicago, since she had no clearer an image of it than I first did. So she came with me to Bouchercon. We walked a lot, ate a lot, saw a lot. She loved it, and it didn’t take long before I felt at home again.

What’s the one thing you have to see? Don’t pin me down. But I’ll pretend I’m writing my own guidebook (and make sure you’re there in the spring or fall, OK?). For starters, get out of town. Take the El out to Oak Park and tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio, then spend an hour walking around the tree-shaded neighborhood to see the astonishing collection of homes he designed. Back in Chi-town, visit the Museum of Science and Industry, guaranteed to bring out the kid in everyone. The museum is housed in the only building left from the Columbian Exposition of 1893. (Reading [Erik Larson’s] The Devil in the White City will give you the historical background.) Walk along North State and Astor streets amid a wonderful collection of mansions and townhouses, most of them now broken up into apartments. Take the architectural boat tour up and down the Chicago River, then visit the Art Institute, one of America’s great museums, and don’t miss the Impressionists. Afterward, stroll around Grant Park, between Lake Michigan and the Loop, and take in the sight of that incomparable skyline I mentioned. And then there’s deep-dish pizza for dinner. I recommend Pizzeria Due on North Wabash.

Wright once worked for the Chicago Tribune.

JKP: After finishing a master’s program in journalism at N.U., I understand you signed on as a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. Was that your dream job? Or had you been dreaming about doing something different with your bright new degree?

EW: I think I had a vague notion of going into magazine journalism, but the best magazine jobs were in New York City, and I didn’t particularly want to live there. Big-city daily newspapering sounded exciting to me, and the Northwestern journalism school functioned as a kind of farm team for the Chicago papers, so I didn’t have any trouble landing a job.

JKP: Chicago journalists have a reputation for being as hard-nosed and dogged as their Manhattan counterparts. Did you discover myriad great journalistic characters during your time at the Trib?

EW: A lot of the Chicago newspaper stereotypes came out of the 1920s and ’30s, when the business was a lot wilder and reporters were more concerned with getting the story first than with getting it right. By the time I went to work there, things had calmed down considerably. But it was still a colorful scene, with an assortment of characters. Drinking was the favorite sport at all the papers, and there were plenty of watering holes in the neighborhood. At one of them, my city editor got into a fistfight with one of his own reporters, who was soon out of a job. Harry Romanoff, night city editor of the afternoon American, was notorious for calling up cops at crime scenes and impersonating officials such as the county coroner to get them to spill details. I have fond memories of a gent named Roland J. Spokely, who mentored me on the local copy desk at the Trib. Spoke, as we called him, had worked in newsrooms all over America and was in his twilight years by the time he came to rest in Chicago. Obese and unkempt, he walked with a cane, smoked filthy cigars, wore a vest and tie that were always sprinkled with ashes, and hummed loudly to himself as he deftly pencil-edited reporters’ stories. He also took lunches that were mostly liquid and was noticeably happier in the latter part of his shift. On the day I joined the desk as the greenest of copy editors, he did not deign to speak to me. But later in the day, he passed me a half-sheet of copy paper on which he had scribbled the exhortation “Edit Tight.” I don’t think the double entendre was intentional.

JKP: How long did you stay at the Trib? And what sorts of subjects did you cover for that newspaper? Was it a satisfying experience?

EW: Chicago at the time had four daily papers--two morning, two afternoon. The morning Tribune was the biggest of the four, housed in a Gothic tower that loomed over North Michigan Avenue just north of the river. The competition among the four was intense, and it was important not to be beaten by your rival--in our case, the Sun-Times. It wasn’t enough just to put out a good paper; you had to have stories that your competitor didn’t.

I spent a couple of years as a junior reporter, covering meat-and-potatoes stories, before I decided that editing appealed to me more. For the next several years I worked as a copy editor on the local desk, as a night picture editor, makeup editor, and then assistant news editor. In this last job, I laid out the news pages in the front section of the paper for the final edition every night. It was fast-paced and exciting; it involved seat-of-the-pants editing and making quick news judgments.

Working at the Tribune, while it lasted, was one of the most fun things I ever did. Chicago newspaper people were a little bit more brash than some of their counterparts at other papers. There was a lot of yelling, something that would be frowned on in the more respectable newsrooms today. Reporters yelled “Copy!,” editors hollered “Lookup!,” and the city editor would occasionally scream across the room to an unlucky reporter being sent out on a cold night: “Murphy--hat and coat!”

Things would build to a crescendo every night--copy boys dashing around the room, phones ringing, typewriters (and later computer keyboards) clacking. Finally, around 9:30, the last piece of copy moved to the composing room, and the city room grew quiet. Reporters and many of the desk people went home; the rest went for coffee or a late “lunch.” Then, around 11, we could feel a faint vibration coming up from the floor as the giant presses began rolling in the basement. And not long afterward, copyboys would move quickly around the room, distributing the first papers off the presses, their pages still damp and smelling of ink. And a few minutes after that, here came the first copies of the Sun-Times. If we’d beaten them, we gloated. If they’d beaten us, we knew we’d have to play “catch-up.” And a few hours later, we’d show up at work again, the slate wiped clean, another news cycle ready to begin.

JKP: Did you go directly from there to working at the Los Angeles Times? And why make the move? Was it simply a better job offer?

EW: It was in fact a better job offer--partly because of the money, but also because it allowed me to finally return to Southern California. The combination was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

JKP: What were your initial impressions of the City of Angels? Did you see it through Raymond Chandler’s rather romantic lens, or as a crass place to make a living?

EW: I found L.A. to be a very welcoming town, just the way I found San Diego in my Navy days. There seems to be a place for everyone out here. You just have to find your niche. It takes adjustments, no question. The city has no single center, at least not in the sense of New York or Chicago. It’s more a collection of communities. You’ll spend more time in your car than you ever did before. Don’t come here if you need your air to be clean and pure. Watch out for earthquakes and brush fires and mudslides. I never try to sell L.A. to anyone, because I assume they must be happy where they are. But I like knowing that, without traveling far, I can take a walk along the ocean whenever I want, or hike up a remote canyon out of sight of everyone and everything. In the suburb where my wife and I live, we’re very close to the L.A. city line. But our street is quiet, we often see red-tailed hawks overhead, and our yard gets occasional visits from possums and raccoons. And once or twice we’ve actually seen a coyote skulking along the street just after dawn. One of the L.A. clichés is that the place is one big shopping mall. Well, the malls are here, no question. But nature’s here too. How many cities this size can say that?

I’d have to argue about Chandler’s take on L.A. He’s one of my favorite writers, and I find myself going back to him periodically the way you go to the well for fresh water. But I think we bring a lot of our own romanticism to his books. The great Chandler style, the Marlowe voice, comes with a heavy dose of bile. When Marlowe talks about L.A., it’s usually in tones of disgust. Chandler obviously found great raw material in this city, but I don’t think he ever particularly liked it or felt at home here. And when he finally got enough money, he moved down the coast to that rich enclave called La Jolla, a long way from the mean streets of L.A. that he wrote about so beautifully. For all its many faults, I like this town. When I left Chicago, it took me in and offered me sunshine and oranges and red-tailed hawks. And I think that comes through in my writing.

(Left) Raymond Chandler

JKP: OK, you’re right about Raymond Chandler not portraying L.A. in a totally romantic light. But the fact that he was writing about the city at a time when it was coming into its own as a metropolis--California’s principal one, much to the consternation of San Francisco--gives the Los Angeles in his books a gauzy, nostalgic tone. Do readers (or even reviwers) try to compare your writing about postwar L.A. with Chandler’s work from that same period? And do you ever feel influenced by Chandler’s impressions of L.A., since he was there in the 1940s, and you weren’t?

EW: I don’t know if anyone’s every compared me with Chandler. If they did, it would make my year. As for being influenced, show me a mystery writer who hasn’t been, in ways great or small. But I don’t think I take many specific cues from him as to the look of the city. After all, I’ve got photos of 1940s L.A., and those great old movies shot on the streets during that time. I can make up my own geography. And as for his impressions, I’ve mentioned that I don’t exactly share his distaste for the city. The old L.A. I write about is a place where I would have wanted to live.

JKP: What do you think is the most distinctive, hard-to-duplicate element of Chandler’s crime fiction?

EW: The voice. Wry and sentimental, tough and poetic all at the same time.

JKP: So, back to your journalism career. How long were you at the Times? And did you work a beat there, or do more feature reporting?

EW: I came to the Times as an editor and, aside from an occasional book review or something like that, never really worked as a writer. I started as a copy editor on the national desk and soon moved to the foreign desk as the Middle East specialist. I edited all the news out of that part of the world for the next few years, then was promoted to assistant foreign editor. I helped supervise the work of the paper’s some three dozen foreign correspondents, assigning and editing their stories. It was a good job, even more challenging than my time in Chicago. I helped run the foreign coverage for some of the big international news stories, including the first Persian Gulf War and the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Times was a different experience. It was a better-written and -edited paper than the Tribune, with more Pulitzer Prizes to show for it, but it also had more of the feel of a big, sedate organization. No yelling, no rushing around. No sense of cutthroat competition for local news, because the Times had no real competition in the city. Something gained, for sure, but something lost, too. And you know what? Today just about every newspaper has become more sedate, including, I’m sure, the Trib itself.

JKP: Were you happier being an editor than a writer?

EW: Yes. Newspaper folk divide neatly into writers and editors, and they usually pick one track or the other fairly early in their careers. After a couple of years as a reporter, I switched over to copy editing and found I liked it more. Each job has its attractions. The writer covers the news, creates the story, and gets the byline. The editor may deal with 20 stories a day instead of one or two and, depending on the job, may write the headlines, design the pages, or even decide which stories make it into the edition and which don’t. The writer’s focus is usually up-close, the editor’s more long-range.

JKP: In all your years as a journalist, what’s the weirdest experience you had, or the oddest story you had to tackle?

EW: I think the experience that has stuck with me the longest was the time I spent in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. I went there not as a reporter but as an editor who wanted to get to know that part of the world better. I was actually on a swing that included Egypt and Israel as well, but Beirut left the strongest impression. The civil war was three years old, with another 12 years to run, and most of it was focused on off-and-on fighting between the Muslims of West Beirut and the Christians of the East.

Before the war, Beirut had been known as the Paris of the Middle East. But the first year of the war had done horrendous damage to the city. Much of the downtown was in ruins, with the big hotels and high-rises pocked by artillery shells and abandoned. The city was split between east and west along what they called the Green Line, and for blocks on both sides of the Green Line, everything was mostly rubble. I could hear small-arms fire every night.

A few years later things would turn much darker--an invasion by Israel, kidnappings of Americans by terrorists, and the suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks that killed hundreds. But while I was there, the fighting was in a lull. I was able to hire a car and driver, get around, talk to people, see things.

One incident sobered me up, though. My driver was taking me over to East Beirut along the only access road that wasn’t closed at the time, an elevated highway. As we crossed from west to east, passing gutted high-rise buildings, I looked down at the wasteland called the Green Line and reached for my camera. “Slow down,” I told the driver. “I want to get a picture.” “Cannot slow down,” he said. “Why not?” “Snipers,” he replied, gesturing toward the buildings we were passing, with their hundreds of vacant windows. “Great,” I said quickly. “Step on it.” Who needs photos?

Postscript: Some time after that, a former Chicago Tribune reporter named Sean Toolan came to Beirut as a freelance writer. He was the guy who had once traded punches with his own city editor. But this was Beirut, where no one fought with their fists. Sean was shot to death on the street in what was apparently an attempted robbery.

JKP: A lot of authors start out in journalism, knowing that there’s very little hope of them making a living as novelists first. What do you think are the most important lessons learned by earning your authorial wings in a hectic newsroom?

EW: I don’t think you learn anything about writing fiction by working in a newsroom, unless your name is Jayson Blair. But there’s a lot to be said for the discipline of reporting and editing, where the emphasis is on clarity, on simple declarative sentences, and on writing without a slew of adjectives and adverbs. It’s like putting up the skeleton of a building. You start with that, and all the flourishes come later. It’s good training whether you go on to be a reporter, essayist, novelist, playwright, or the guy who writes the annual report for the Consolidated Widget Company.

JKP: I don’t know about you, but I started out in journalism (at newspapers, then at magazines) thinking I was doing an important public service, breaking stories that needed to be told, following the Woodward and Bernstein vision. But I wound up realizing that so much of journalism is just filling copy holes, and trying to seduce readers into believing that they’re getting more than they really are. Maybe I’ve gotten bitter over the years, but I needed to get out of journalism. Did you have similar disappointments/doubts?

EW: There’s something in what you say. Remember, it’s the ads that are laid into the pages first, not the articles. That tells you where most of a newspaper’s profit comes from. But some newspapers try to fill those holes with excellent stuff, not just with stuff, and the challenge to do that every day was part of the lure of journalism for me.

Having said that, daily journalism can wear on you. A lot of people enjoy it and then, having done it, need to move on. That was me. After years of newspapering, I felt like trying something different.

JKP: At some point you stopped working for the Times, and moved toward becoming a full-time novelist. When was that? And what was the transition period like? Was it frightening to make the leap? Did you have much support?

EW: I left the Times in ’93. The transition period was a little scary, because I had no training as a novelist. To get started, I read a few books on the subject (they must not have helped much, because I can’t remember them). I took a couple of classes at the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program (which were a little more helpful). And I joined an informal writing group composed of a few friends. That proved to be the biggest help of all, because it got me used to producing material on time, thoughtfully reading the work of others and being critiqued by them. Fiction writing is a lonely business, so it helps to get together periodically with others who have the same affliction. I also got support from Cathy--who, by strange coincidence, told me she’d once thought it might be nice to be married to a writer. Now she’s stuck with one.

JKP: Tell me: What was your hardest lesson in becoming a novelist, after spending so long in journalistic circles?

EW: This may sound strange, but the hardest thing was to learn how to make things up. All the writing/editing work I’d done up until then had to do with facts--uncovering facts, putting them into words and sentences, rearranging them to make more sense, etc. Creating it all from scratch was a giant leap for me. It meant learning to exercise my imagination and to have faith in what resulted.

JKP: I can definitely relate. After writing half a dozen non-fiction books, I’m currently working (oh so slowly) on my first novel, and discovering just how much I didn’t know about writing fiction before I started. It’s damnably difficult work, but immensely gratifying, especially when I get into a groove where it seems I’m just writing down what my characters tell me happened next in their story. Do you ever have that same sort of experience?

EW: Sometimes it seems as if it’s happening that way. But then I remind myself that I dreamed up the characters, and they can’t do anything unless I really want them to. I think what happens is that as a character develops and you get to know her better, she begins to offer you more choices as to the role she can play in the story. In that sense, I guess she’s speaking to you. But you still have to decide. In a way, that’s one of the toughest things for me about writing fiction, and it’s miles away from journalism--the issue of deciding what to do next. Because in non-fiction, your choices are governed somewhat by the raw material, the facts. In fiction, your choices are almost without number.

JKP: What element of novel-writing have you still not mastered?

EW: All of it. Every part of writing--plotting, narration, description, character, dialogue--is tough to do, and I just hope to get better at all of those things as I go along.

JKP: So, how many novels did you write before you began work on Clea’s Moon? What were they about, and are they still waiting to be dusted off and revamped someday?

EW: I wrote one fragment of a novel, about 20,000 words, that was so stupefyingly bad I shoved it far back in one of my deepest drawers. There it still sits, never to emerge. Then, around the time I joined the writing group, I started another novel that, with the group’s help, I eventually finished about three years later. A New York literary agent liked it well enough to take me on, but he wasn’t able to sell it. I think writing it was good training for me, and there are things about it I still like. Maybe someday I’ll try to dust it off.

JKP: Can you say more about that unpublished novel? I’ve heard it had something to do with “a notorious murder in 1940s Hollywood.” Might that be referring to the 1947 Black Dahlia killing, which has already provided the jumping-off point for James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia and Max Allan Collins’ Angel in Black?

EW: No, although that’s a great topic, and I’m sure people will be writing about her forever. What I had in mind was a little closer to the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the silent film director--although that happened in 1922. In my book, a scoundrel of a director is killed in 1948 as he is filming an epic about the Spanish Civil War. The movie is never finished, and the answers to everything take 40 years to work out. I also got ideas from the fascinating story of the filming of I, Claudius in the 1930s by director Josef Von Sternberg. It was shaping up as a potentially great film (Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon among the cast) but was shut down and never finished. The reasons were complicated but did not have to do with a murder.

JKP: Why didn’t you become discouraged after having so many agents turn down your first novel? Many another writer would’ve gone on to some other career, instead.

EW: Well, I’d tried newspapering, and there was nothing else I wanted to do as much as write fiction. Besides, I’d told too many people what I was doing. To give up would have been pretty embarrassing.

JKP: Had you enjoyed a long love affair with crime and mystery fiction prior to your starting Clea’s Moon? Or was this new territory for you? And what got you interesting in tackling the genre?

EW: I’ve always enjoyed a well-written mystery or thriller. But I like to read almost everything, including a lot of non-fiction. Getting into writing, I think I saw crime fiction as a manageable genre, with recognizable rules and parameters, that may be a little more friendly to the beginning writer. I still believe that, but once you get into it, you recognize that the mystery is also a very elastic category, and that you can take it just about anywhere. Maybe that’s why mysteries have so much appeal. They have comfortable niches for readers who prefer them, and far horizons for those who want to wander.

JKP: How deep into the writing of Clea’s Moon were you, when you won the Debut Dagger Award in 2001?

EW: About 20 chapters in, maybe two-thirds of the book.

JKP: You weren’t British. How did you even hear about the Debut Dagger prize, and what made you enter the contest in the first place? Did you have any expectation of winning?

EW: Cathy and I were on a driving trip around Ireland, and we’d settled into Dublin for a few days. We were sitting in a coffee shop, and I began browsing through a leftover copy of the Times of London’s Sunday magazine. I saw an ad from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain headlined, “You Could Be the Next Ian Rankin,” and describing something called the Debut Dagger competition for unpublished mystery writers. I turned to her and said, “Hey, I’m an unpublished mystery writer.” I wasn’t sure if the contest was open to me, but at least it didn’t say “Brits Only.” (As I later found out, the contest entries take in most of the English-speaking world. But I believe I’m still the only American to have won.)

I clipped out the ad and brought it home, thinking I’d enter for the heck of it. I almost changed my mind when I found that in addition to the 10-pound entry fee, it would cost me an extra $40 for the international bank draft. But I went ahead. Fresh from the experience of seeing virtually every editor in New York turn down my last novel, I guess I was looking for some kind of shortcut to publication. But since the ad mentioned that the last competition had drawn over 400 entries, I had absolutely no expectation of winning.

JKP: Remind me: What were the requirements and rewards of the Debut Dagger contest? And how important was winning that in terms of your becoming a novelist?

EW: To enter, you didn’t submit an entire manuscript (lucky for me, since mine wasn’t finished anyway), you sent in the first 3,000 words. As the ad put it, the winner would get a cash prize, and all finalists would get a written critique of their entry along with a bag of free books. I would have been very happy with the critique and the books, and with the privilege of referring to myself as a “finalist for the Debut Dagger” on the cover of my first book, if I ever had one published. When the word came that I’d won, I was in no way prepared for it. It felt like a gift. The Debut Dagger organizer, Michael Jecks …, asked me if I wanted to come to England for the awards banquet. It was not an idle question, since the World Trade Center had been hit a week or two earlier, and I wasn’t particularly eager to jump on an international flight. But Cathy put it all in perspective: “How can we not go?” she said. So we went.

If I’d been looking for a shortcut, this was it. Within a week of the award--and before we’d even left England--I had a London agent and a two-book deal with Orion Books. By the time a month had gone by, I had another two-book deal with Putnam in the U.S. How important was the Dagger? Very. It opened the doors. To this day, whenever anyone asks me how to get published, I tell them, “Enter a contest.”

Cathy and Edward Wright celebrate his Barry Award win, for Damnation Falls, at Bouchercon 2008. (Photo by Ali Karim)

JKP: Do you consider yourself a historical crime novelist?

EW: Just a mystery writer. I happen to be writing period novels right now. But my next one will be a contemporary story--still a mystery, but set this time in rural East Tennessee and involving a disgraced ex-Chicago newspaperman (no relation), a former governor, a murder or two or three, buried secrets coming to light, and the persistence of history. After that, maybe another visit to John Ray Horn’s Los Angeles.

JKP: And what’s the genesis of John Ray Horn, aka “Sierra Lane”? How did he come to you, and is he based on anybody in particular, or perhaps a combination of people you’ve known?

EW: He just sidled in the door one day, so to speak, when I was thinking out loud about possible characters for the next book. I remember saying to my wife, “What would you think about a onetime B-movie cowboy actor who got in trouble with the law and went off to prison, then gets out and tries to put his life back together?” She said, “Great.” And that was it. John Ray isn’t based on anyone I’ve known. His public persona--the movie cowboy--could be a composite of several of the cowboy heroes I remember from movies and TV. The private John Ray is pure fiction. Same with Joseph Mad Crow, who if anything showed up even faster. He just sprang to life, big and brash, without much encouragement from me.

JKP: Horn seems forever to get the short end of the stick. He’s been blacklisted by movie studios, his wife and teenage stepdaughter are mostly out of his life, and former fans are slightly appalled by his professional backsliding. He can’t even get a steady girl, damn it! Was it necessary to make him quite so pathetic in these books?

EW: I guess I have a low tolerance for the cocky, know-it-all detective who makes everything look easy. I wanted to draw a character who’s been high (a movie star) and then is knocked low, someone who has to look in the mirror every day and compare his old, heroic image with what he’s become. John Ray is an ex-con, an outcast, and that means that when he’s called on to help people, to make wrong things right, he starts out at an enormous disadvantage. Nothing comes easy for him. I like that in a character.

JKP: In Clea’s Moon, your protagonist describes himself as the elder son of an Arkansas hill country preacher, the Reverend John Jacob Horn, who “could deliver a sermon that had the ladies crying and rolling their eyes, then come home and beat me to a pulp for sassing him.” How did you come up with that background? Was it necessary that Horn’s upbringing be in such sharp contrast with his adult life in that “Sodom called Los Angeles”? And why, to the best of my recollection, have you not delved much further into his family’s past?

EW: Since L.A. is where you go to re-invent yourself, I wanted to give John Ray the kind of repressive background that would make the idea of re-invention especially attractive. Of course, there’s the Depression, which was already pulling a lot of Arkies like him out to California. But because of his upbringing, he has another compelling reason for wanting to get away.

Up until now, I haven’t had much occasion to go into the family’s past. But the next John Ray Horn book may give me a chance to do that. We’ll see. As I mentioned, it’s not just up to me. The publishers and the readers have to want it, too.

JKP: From Clea’s Moon onward, we’ve seen Horn living at and caretaking “the old Ricardo Aguilar place” in Culebra Canyon, “a relic of the silent-movie days when Hollywood royalty built estates to match their screen images.” You write in Clea’s Moon that silent-movie star Aguilar retired to this mansion when he found it impossible to transition into the age of “talkies,” and that it burned down years later, taking Aguilar with it. Is this wreck of an estate supposed to remind us of any real locale in L.A.? And why did you choose to include Aguilar’s story within Horn’s?

EW: There’s a rundown mansion I’ve driven by in Laurel Canyon, and I’ve often thought it would have been quite a place in its heyday. When I dreamed up a home for John Ray. I wanted it to be an isolated spot, reflecting his lower place in society. I put the ruined Aguilar estate just up the hill from him as a statement about how wealth and celebrity often don’t last long in this town. John Ray had his time in the Hollywood sun; so did Ricardo Aguilar, on a much larger scale. But they both lost it.

JKP: How much of Horn’s motivation in the things he does in your novels comes from his wish to recapture the heroic renown he had as a movie character, and how much is motivated by his wish to find an honorable identity beyond his film persona?

EW: It’s very little about his old persona. “It was just acting,” he says in one of the books. And from his time in [World War II], he knows that his old heroic image was strictly celluloid. What drives him today, I think, is the need to clean himself up, to prove that he’s more than just the guy who went to prison and lost his family. I’m not sure he ever really believed in Sierra Lane. But I think he wants to believe in John Ray Horn. And is still working at it.

JKP: How would you characterize the relationship between Horn and his old movie sidekick, Joseph Mad Cow?

EW: Trusting but sometimes prickly. Through their history--when John Ray helped Mad Crow get his start in the movies, at a time when racism weighed against it, and Mad Crow later gave him a leg up when he got out of prison--they have relied on each other in enormous ways. But they’re different personalities, and they sometimes don’t like to acknowledge how much each needs the other.

JKP: Will their relationship change over the course of your books?

EW: Not fundamentally. I think they’ll occasionally strike sparks off each other but always remain friends.

JKP: My recollection of old B-movie Westerners, of the type in which Horn appeared, is they could be pretty cheesy. But were you a big follower of the genre growing up?

EW: A huge fan. The cowboy movie stars defined heroism for me. They were made for kids, remember, and back in the days before superheroes and Star Wars, they were pretty much everything. But I can’t watch those movies today. You’re right about them. They’re badly written, badly acted, badly shot … Tastes change, and what moves you as a kid may not touch you at all as an adult.

JKP: Is there anything you’ve learned since about writing novels, that you wish you’d known when you were working on Clea’s Moon?

EW: I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. I’m getting better at it, but I’m still not nearly as fast a writer as I’d like to be.

JKP: I’m curious about the fact that your second novel appeared under two titles: The Silver Face in the UK, and While I Disappear in the States. Can I assume that was a publisher’s decision?

EW: The Silver Face was my first choice of title. Orion, the British publisher, liked it, but Putnam, the American publisher, didn’t. We negotiated for a while and came up with While I Disappear. Without disliking the American choice (and I like the reference to the song lyric, which is very appropriate to the character of Rose [Galen]), I think I prefer The Silver Face.

JKP: Do you come up with the titles of your books first, or their plots?

EW: Plots, characters, settings. Pretty much everything before the title. Ideally, I think the title should grow out of the book.

JKP: When you’re writing a book, how much of the plot do you have figured out ahead of time? And where do you see the balance between plot driving a novel, and characters driving it instead?

EW: I try to have the setup nailed down pretty well--the basic situation, main characters, and action of the opening chapters--before I start writing. I also need to have the resolution sketched out in my mind. This is, after all, a mystery novel, and the resolution needs to be both logical and satisfying. But everything in between I expect to explore and discover for myself in the writing. I just try to keep the wrap-up in mind as I write, so I don’t stray too far left or right.

As for plot versus character, you can’t do an effective mystery without a pretty good plot. But I’d rather read a good character-driven story, so I tend to lean that way in my writing too.

JKP: Clea’s Moon was mostly about John Ray trying to reconnect with his past by rescuing his former stepdaughter, who’d found trouble in “blue movies.” While I Disappear turned on long-ago jealousy and a crime that occurred at a Hollywood party. And Red Sky Lament is ostensibly about Communist paranoia of the late ’40s. Yet the plots of all three really have to do with sex--and at least in the first two cases, sexual violation. Do you consider sex the foremost motive for crimes, or is it simply the easiest to communicate?

EW: Interesting question. It’s definitely one of those primal things, and yes, I’m sure it’s one of the main motivators for violent crime. As [singer-songwriter] Woody Guthrie says in Red Sky Lament (I admit I put the words in his mouth, but I also believe them): Most murders, at least the up-close, personal kind, are not committed for big reasons, like politics. They’re about small things, like money or sex.

JKP: Without giving too much away, I must say that as I was reading While I Disappear, I kept thinking about the 1921 Fatty Arbuckle scandal, in which that silent-movie funny man was accused (wrongly, it turned out) of raping a starlet in a San Francisco hotel room. Was your story somehow inspired by that incident?

EW: Yes, and you’re one of the few readers who’ve mentioned that.

JKP: Let’s talk some more about Red Sky Lament, which came out in Great Britain earlier this year [2006]. The obvious question is: Why hasn’t it been published yet in the States? And are you in negotiations with any U.S. publishers over the book?

EW: We never found an American publisher who wanted to bring it out. As my British editor commented, “It’s tough over there.” But it should get fairly good exposure in the U.S., because Orion is selling it over here through their American distributor, so it’ll be in the stores. They’re also sending out review copies, and I’m hoping the critics will respond. One early review is in--from Dick Adler at the Chicago Tribune--and to say I’m happy with it would be an understatement. I’ve never met Dick Adler, but I think I owe him a beer.

JKP: I can’t help but wonder whether your decision to ground Lament in the Joseph McCarthy-era “Red scare” had anything to do with current events. I mean, the same sort of governmental intrusion into private lives, and the same fear and suspicion that were prevalent during the late 1940s and early ’50s seem to be having a renaissance of sorts in the 21st century, what with George W. Bush’s warrantless domestic spying program and his administration’s exploitation of fear for partisan political gain. Or am I reading too much into your story plotting? Do you recognize the parallels?

EW: I see them. If they give the book added resonance, I’m glad. But if I was drawing parallels, I really wasn’t giving it much thought. Maybe it was all unconscious.

JKP: I’m curious, is there any difference between working with American editors and publishers, and their British counterparts? Do you find different requests being made of you, or distinctive reader reactions? And did it free you up any to be negotiating only with the Orion folks on Lament?

EW: One set of editors is always less complicated than two. But a good editor is a good editor, whether in London or New York. Whatever differences I noticed were between individuals and not because of cultural differences. In fact, Orion made it a point not to “Anglicize” any of my spellings or references. I’m an American writer, and they’re happy for me to read that way in England.

JKP: All of your Horn novels so far seem to be crowding into 1946 and ’47, with Lament taking place, I guess, in the spring of that year, which was when Republican Congressman J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, who chaired the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee--and is mentioned in the novel--traveled to L.A. to meet with film executives in hopes of rooting out supposed “commies” from Hollywood. Are you simply trying to give yourself as much room to write the Horn series as possible, or do you think for some reason that Horn’s adventures wouldn’t work so well if they extend into the subsequent Eisenhower era, for example?

EW: I picked the postwar years as the period I wanted to write about, and unless I find a reason to change my mind, John Ray will forever remain there. There’ve been some terrific series characters who move from decade to decade--Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, for one--but I feel that John Ray is a creature of his particular time.

JKP: Although Representative Thomas doesn’t make an actual appearance in Lament, as far as I recall, singer Woody Guthrie does. But his cameos are pretty short. Other novelists, when they’ve penned stories in which real-life figures participate, often allow those folks to play larger roles in their tales. Why keep Guthrie so confined?

EW: I love to bring in historical figures for cameos--Woodie Guthrie and Charles Laughton in Red Sky and Mickey Cohen in Clea’s Moon, for example. And I try to keep them true to what I know of their real characters. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving them a bigger role in a fictional piece, because that would mean taking real liberties with who they were. I’m sure E.L. Doctorow and Caleb Carr would disagree.

As I said, I have a lot of fun doing it, and I’m sure I’ll do more. But it’s the sort of thing you can overdo, like making too many references to Studebakers or Lucky Strike Greens. It’s also an easy substitute for the hard work of creating good fictional characters. (Look over there! It’s Clark Gable!)

JKP: Do you think there’s too much effort made by historical novelists these days to rope real-life figures into their fiction?

EW: I haven’t read widely enough to answer that. But in the case of the two writers I mentioned above, I was thinking of Doctorow’s Ragtime and Carr’s The Alienist. And in each case, I thought they used historical figures very well. It worked because they’re good writers who wrote well-rounded novels that didn’t rely on famous names like Harry Houdini or Teddy Roosevelt to carry too much of the weight. If they’d been less accomplished writers, the use of celebrities might have felt more like a stunt.

JKP: Have you long had an interest in Woody Guthrie?

EW: Yes. I’ve had one of his albums since college, or thereabouts. I’ve always been interested in how art is used to change people’s minds. Documentary film, paintings like Guernica, union songs like the kind Guthrie wrote. But it wasn’t until I decided to do a book about the politics of the 1940s that I really looked into his story. I read Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life, a very readable, warts-and-all biography. And I listened to more of his music. And gradually, I got a clearer picture of the scrawny little guy with the social conscience and the inquiring mind and the questionable hygiene and the drinking habit. Some of the issues I deal with in Red Sky are the very things that concerned him, so he fit very naturally in the book.

JKP: If my memory serves correctly, Horn’s onetime co-star and ex-lover, Maggie O’Dare, has been part of this series since the outset. But she plays a much larger role in Lament, hiring John Ray to investigate the murder of a screenwriter accused of having been a Communist Party member. And there’s the potential of her having a more substantive part in John Ray’s life in the future. From what you know of these characters, is that a reasonable possibility?

EW: Maybe. But I’m reminded of the way some series writers get in trouble when they make their main character too comfortable. John Ray is a man with a big dose of dissatisfaction in his life. Make him too happy, and I’m afraid I might start to lose interest in him. And readers might too.

JKP: By the way, I have to object (not seriously, of course) to something you write in Lament, in reference to J. Edgar Hoover, J. Parnell Thomas, and a fictional player named A. Dixon Vance. You say that Horn “found himself reminded of an old piece of advice from Mad Crow--delivered only partly in jest, it seemed at the time--Never trust a man who parts his name on the side.” As another guy who does that very thing (my byline being J. Kingston Pierce), what am I to think?

EW: Sorry. I was echoing an old saying that was a favorite of a fellow deskman at the Tribune. I’ve been waiting for years to use it in print. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the management.

JKP: How many John Ray Horn novels are already rolling around in your head? And how about novels that don’t feature Horn?

EW: I have one more in mind that would dig deeper into a subject you’ve raised--John Ray’s father, the Reverend Mr. Horn. As for other subjects, I’m holding my breath until I see what kind of reception I get with Redemption Falls. If it clicks, I might try another standalone.

JKP: Do you already have a publisher for Redemption Falls?

EW: It’s been sold to Orion in England. Once it’s finished, I’ll show it to American publishers and see if they like it.

JKP: And are you writing this contemporary novel because you needed a break from Horn, or was the story you’re telling just too compelling not to tackle right away?

EW: I thought it was time to leave John Ray and his world for just a while, although I do plan to go back, assuming readers and publishers will be interested. My main reason for the change was to try my hand at a standalone novel. Up until now, all I’ve published were installments of a series.

JKP: Why did you make the choice to set this next novel in rural Tennessee, rather than Southern California again? You’ve never lived for long in Tennessee, have you?

EW: The idea was to do everything differently, to change the setting, the time period, even the narrative voice--from third- to first-person. Contemporary East Tennessee seemed a good contrast to 1940s Los Angeles. And yes, I’ve spent time in Tennessee. There were my three years at Vanderbilt, in Nashville. I’ve been back to the state twice since then. Most recently, I spent two weeks driving all over the place, from Memphis to the Smokies, to see how much had changed and how much remained. It was also partly an excuse to hear some great bluegrass and eat some great barbecue.

JKP: Has your self-definition as a writer changed over the last few years, in terms of what you think you can and cannot accomplish? Where do you see yourself in the arc of your evolution as a novelist?

EW: With each new book, I suppose I’m a little more comfortable with the idea of being a full-time novelist. I’m not sure the actual writing gets any easier, but I do seem to be doing it a little faster, which is a relief. As for goals, I’d just like to get better--write bigger books, deeper themes, more complex characters, all those things. They can be series novels or not. All that matters is that I don’t stand still.

JKP: A great many crime novelists also pen short stories. Have you ever tried or been invited to write such abbreviated yarns?

EW: I was approached once to write a collection of short stories for some kind of limited-edition publisher, but I had to tell him I’ve never written any short fiction and wouldn’t know how to start. My wife’s been working on a short story lately, though. It’s her first, and I’m very interested in seeing where she goes with it. Maybe I can learn something.

JKP: Do you read much other crime fiction these days?

EW: I don’t read nearly as much as I should. I’m more likely to be into non-fiction. Right now, because of Redemption Falls, I’m reading Shelby Foote and Geoffrey Ward on the Civil War, just for background.

One crime novelist I mention a lot to others is James Lee Burke. He seems to be good at all the things we try to do, and bad at none of them. Plot, action, physical description, sex, you name it. And no one sets a mood better.

JKP: If you could have written any one or two books that don’t already appear under your byline, which would you choose?

EW: Moby Dick. But you’re kidding, right? Because I couldn’t have written it. And if I pick a book I could have written, then I wouldn’t have nearly as much reason to admire it.

JKP: Finally, what do you think is the greatest Southern novel ever? (And yes, I recognize the difficulty of that question.)

EW: You mean after The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? (Although I agree with [Ernest] Hemingway that you should stop reading at the point where Jim, the slave, is stolen from Tom and Huck. The rest of the story is just Twain fooling around.) I’d say All the King’s Men. Wherever it ranks among Southern novels, it’s one of the best things ever written about American politics. Having said that, though, there’s a lot I haven’t gotten around to reading, including, I’m sorry to say, much of Faulkner.

Interesting footnote on All the King’s Men: A Robert Penn Warren scholar [Noel Polk] has just published a new edition of the book that restores almost all of the things Warren’s editor took out or changed when the book was first published in 1946. It even restores the name Warren originally gave to the Willie Stark character--Willie Talos. If you like Warren’s writing, this edition gives you even more of it.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE: Rap Sheet contributor Ali Karim interviewed Edward Wright for Shots back in 2004. And Jeff Rutherford talked with Wright in 2012 for his Reading and Writing Podcast.