Sunday, July 21, 2024

Nashville’s Second Round Selections

Organizers of the 2024 Killer Nashville conference have announced their line-ups of finalists for this year’s Silver Falchion Awards, in 17 categories—not all of them crime-fiction related.

Here are the nominees for Best Mystery:

Mouse in the Box, by Lewis Allan (Stretched Studio)
Indigo Road, by Reed Bunzel (Coffeetown Press)
Beautiful Death, by John Deal (Dark Lake Press)
Secrets Don’t Sink, by K.B. Jackson (Level Best)
BeatNikki’s Café, by Renee James (Amble Press)
The Empty Kayak, by Jodé Millman (Level Best)

And below are the candidates for Best Investigator honors:

When Things Fall Apart, by Alan Brenham (Independently published)
Reflections in a Dragon’s Eye, by Bradley Harper and Lydia Galehouse (Papillon du Père)
Vessels of Wrath, by Thomas Holland (Independently published)
These Still Black Waters, by Christina McDonald (Thomas & Mercer)
Standing Dead, by Margaret Mizushima (Crooked Lane)
Splintered Loyalty, by Mark Troy (Down & Out)

The winner in each division and three overall winners will be declared during the Killer Nashville Awards Dinner to be held in Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday, August 23.

From that same celebration will come word of which books have won the 2024 Claymore Awards, given for the “best first 50 pages of an unpublished manuscript, play, or screenplay.” There are again 17 groups of picks. These are the nominees for Best Mystery:

Killer Eyes, by Denis Berkfeldt
Death of a Glades Man, by Jane Bock
Dare to Live, by Paul Guyot
The Healer's Curse, by John Madinger
What They Buried, by P.J. McAvoy
Fishing for Murder, by Mark Zeid

Congratulations to all of this year’s finalists!

The earlier longlists of 2024 Silver Falchion selectees can be found on this page. To see the Claymore Award longlists, click here.

Saturday, July 20, 2024

What the Strand Says

The Strand Magazine has announced the nominees for its 2024 Critics Awards. The Best Novel category is short of surprises; however, the Best Debut list includes a few works of rather less familiarity.

Best Mystery Novel:
All the Sinners Bleed, by S.A. Cosby (Flatiron)
Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper (Mulholland)
Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane (Harper)
Resurrection Walk, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
Prom Mom, by Laura Lippman (Morrow)
Time’s Undoing, by Cheryl A. Head (Dutton)
The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Soho Crime)

Best Debut Mystery:
Fadeaway Joe, by Hugh Lessig (Crooked Lane)
Mother-Daughter Murder Night, by Nina Simon (Morrow)
The House in the Pines, by Ana Reyes (Dutton)
Don’t Forget the Girl, by Rebecca McKanna (Sourcebooks Landmark)
Adrift, by Lisa Brideau (Sourcebooks Landmark)
The Peacock and the Sparrow, by I.S. Berry (Atria)

As was true last year, The Strand will give out two Lifetime Achievement Awards for 2024—to both Kathy Reichs and Max Allan Collins. Jonathan Karp of Simon and Schuster has been chosen to receive the magazine’s Publisher of the Year Award.

* * *

And I missed mentioning that S.A. Cosby’s Razorblade Tears (published originally in 2021) has been named by the Maltese Falcon Society of Japan as the winner of its 2024 Maltese Falcon Award. The Falcon prize (“a wood-crafted Falcon statuette”) is given to “the best hard-boiled/private eye novel published in Japan in the previous year.”

(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

Friday, July 19, 2024

Revue of Reviewers: 7-19-24

Critiquing some of the most interesting recent crime, mystery, and thriller releases. Click on the individual covers to read more.

Peculier Praise

Jo Callaghan’s In the Blink of an Eye (Simon & Schuster UK), described by The Guardian as “a ‘boundary-pushing take on the police procedural’ which features a human detective working with an AI sleuth in order to solve a missing persons case,” has won the 2024 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. That announcement was made last evening, at the opening of this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England.

The other five well-reviewed novels contending for the Theakston prize were The Last Dance, by Mark Billingham (Sphere); The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville); Killing Jericho, by William Hussey (Zaffre); None of This Is True, by Lisa Jewell (Century), and Strange Sally Diamond, by Liz Nugent (Sandycove).

In addition, this week brought word of which book and author have captured the inaugural McDermid Debut Award, named in honor of Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, a longtime promoter of new authors and co-founder of the Theakston festival in 2003. It goes to Deadly Animals, by Marie Tierney (Bonnier). That novel beat out rivals Crow Moon, by Suzy Aspley (Orenda); Dark Island, by Daniel Aubrey (HarperCollins); Knife Skills for Beginners, by Orlando Murrin (Bantam); Mrs. Sidhu’s Dead and Scone, by Suk Pannu (HarperCollins); and The Library Thief, by Kuchenga Shenjé (Sphere).

Finally, Martina Cole, “famous for her gritty, female-centred books about London’s underworld” (again from The Guardian), was given this year’s Theakston Old Peculier Outstanding Contribution prize.

Thursday, July 18, 2024

Give a Hand for the Hammett

The North American Branch of the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW) has announced that Crook Manifesto, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday), has won its 2023 Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime writing.

The four other novels vying for that award were Night Letter, by Sterling Watson (Akashic); Stealing, by Margaret Verble (Mariner); The Quiet Tenant, by Clémence Michallon (Knopf); and The Almost Widow, by Gail Anderson-Dargatz (Harper Avenue).

The IACW has handed out this honor—named, of course, for author Dashiell Hammett—every year since 1991. Previous recipients include James Crumley, Margaret Atwood, Martin Cruz Smith, Carol Goodman, Dan Fesperman, Lisa Sandlin, Lou Berney, and last year’s winner, Samantha Jayne Allen.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Right on Q

If Miss Moneypenny can have her own James Bond spin-off series, then why not Q, head of the British Secret Service’s research and development division? The Book Bond highlights plans to introduce Q as the main protagonist in Quantum of Menace, which is being written by Vaseem Khan, an acclaimed crime fictionist and chair of the British Crime Writers’ Association. Here’s a plot synopsis:
After Q (aka Major Boothroyd) is unexpectedly ousted from his role with British Intelligence developing technologies for MI6’s OO agents, he finds himself back in his sleepy hometown of Wickstone-on-Water. His childhood friend, renowned quantum computer scientist Peter Napier, has died in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind a cryptic note. The police seem disinterested, but Q feels compelled to investigate and soon discovers that Napier’s ground-breaking work may have attracted sinister forces … Can Q decode the truth behind Napier's death, even as danger closes in?
A joint venture between Ian Fleming Publications and the UK imprint Zaffre will introduce this first Q Mysteries entry in October 2025.

READ MORE:Now It’s Q’s Turn for a Spin-off Book Series,” by Bill Koenig (The Spy Command).

Friday, July 12, 2024

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Hit,” by Jere Hoar

(Editor’s note: This is the 185th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Peter Handel
The Hit is a hard-boiled novel released in 2003 and written by Jere Hoar, a prominent figure in the Mississippi literary and academic world, whose only other published work was a 1997 short-story collection titled Body Parts.

If you have seen some of the classic films noirs of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, or read much noirish fiction, you know the tropes:

1. Protagonist: Male, maybe a psychologically scarred veteran, or an alienated, bitter loner.
2. Protagonist: Female, femme fatale, black widow, who channels desire and is a sizzling, sexual siren ... but unhappily married.
3. Obsession. Plenty of rumination, plenty of caution ... OK, no caution, just blind lust and big dreams of a better, more-monied life.
4. A plan to make it all happen. A plan to get away.
5. A plan that goes awry.
6. Told in flashback, by the loser, of course.
7. Twists … and the one at the end here is quite predictable.

None of these (cherished) devices are “new” and neither are the narrative machinations of The Hit.

So why bother cracking open this surprisingly obscure exercise in a genre beloved by so many talented writers? The Hit reads much of the time like a paint-by-numbers type of endeavor: Let’s write a hard-boiled novel and have some fun. Yet Hoar’s circle certainly approved of his efforts—Barry Hannah, John Grisham, Jim Harrison, and Tom McGuane have all given The Hit fawning blurbs.

And the thing is, while the story line offered here is familiar, the prose is not. Hoar writes dialogue and scenes like few others in the genre. He was a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi for more than 30 years (1956-1992) and a gifted, if sadly under-published, writer who knew how to craft a hell of a sentence. His irreverent sense of humor also shines through at the least expected moments.

Hoar’s tale is broken up into parts with a (meaningless) conceit of being recounted by our anti-hero, Luke Carr, in the form of “Notebooks” he has written at the behest of his psychiatrist at the mental hospital where he’s being treated.

Carr is a Vietnam veteran who’s returned home to his Southern rural roots. He lives with his well-trained dog, Adel, in a cabin next to a national forest. The book begins with Luke and a woman, Kinnerly Morris, parked in a car off a desolate road.
“Come here. I want to stroke you like a cat,” says Luke
to Kinnerly.

“But you’re a dangerous man,” replies Kinnerly.

“All the nicer for you.”

She came to me on her knees, wrapped her arms around my neck, and bent my head back for a kiss. “How’s that, big boy?” she said in a Mae West voice. My hands slid under her fur coat and wool skirt. All she was wearing under there was a garter belt and stockings.
Fifteen minutes later they leave, only to stop again, in order to discuss the elephant in the room: Kinnerly’s husband, Tom Morris. Once he’s out of the picture they figure life will be perfect!
We sat in the dark. It wasn’t safe. None of this was. I sucked in air. Once this thing started there could be no turning back. It was one long plunge into an icy river with treacherous currents.
Luke has an idea: stage an accident along a roadway that Tom will be driving on in the dark. As a skilled hunter and outdoorsman, Luke concocts an elaborate and seemingly foolproof plan, first setting up an alibi, then killing a doe, and on the night of the murder, propping up that doe’s body with two-by-fours in the middle of the road. When Tom’s car comes barreling along, he’ll have to stop when he hits the deer, and then, Luke will nail him—with his chosen weapon: a crossbow.
The car whistled by, spinning gravel. Brakes howled. Dust flew from locked tires. The car slewed left, flashing its lights across foliage, illuminating details of leaves and limbs. It turned sideways and slid into the deer. The deer bounced away. One supporting timber flew through the light beam. The Porsche’s front wheels churned in a ditch. They reversed and churned again. The motor raced and the back wheels spun. Then the motor quit. I nocked the arrow and waited. It would be an easy shot by the overhead light of the car. The driver’s-side door opened. I heard a voice, a jingly tune. On the car radio, Burt Bacharach was singing “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”
Out staggers Tom, disoriented and angry. Suddenly, Luke sees him as a person, a man, unarmed, not simply a target. He says to himself, “I was no William Calley, Jr. It was over. I was getting out.”

As he starts to crawl away, though, a twig snaps and Tom sees him and pulls a pistol, aiming at Luke.
Instinctively I released the arrow. He screamed and kept on screaming, leaning to one side. The high-pitched keening went on and on while Bacharach played piano. … Abruptly, Morris sat down and coughed. A soft bubbly waft of air came out of his mouth as he toppled to the side.
Grimly, Luke deals with the dying, grotesque Tom. He gets his body back in the car, and then breaks his neck, just to make sure he’s gone. Except, Tom’s right-hand man, Angus McKay, drives by, and quickly ascertains what’s going on. That’s when the blackmail begins.

All of this in the novel’s first 28 pages!

A new “Notebook” begins, flashing back to how these two wrought-up former lovers, Luke and Kinnerly, reunited. How they share a past, going back to their days as students at Ole Miss, but the Vietnam War and many years divided them. We’re reminded of that classic noir trope, “I know you’re bad for me, but …,”—when Kinnerly turns up at Luke’s cabin after they’ve been apart for eight years.
There’s always one woman in your life that’s wrong for you, who’s going to get you into trouble. You’d be better off never having met her, but she’s the one you think about and want and can’t get out of your mind—not ever.
The stress of what they’re doing, sneaking around behind Tom Morris’ back, causes hiccups in their revived relationship. But the pair stay united, unable to conceive of any other way to be together.
Making love to the woman I’d fantasized about for as long as I’d been a man and having her come to me with the same desire … laughing with her, telling stories … being together for thirty-six hours when she wasn’t hurried or worried, bonded us in ways I didn’t fully realize at the time.

Could I give her up? Sure, I would have said. But cold biological fact is this: When a scientist taps a platinum wire into the pleasure center of a rat’s brain, tickles it with a charge, and shows the rat how to receive that charge upon demand, he will pleasure himself without ceasing until he dies.
And our boy Luke has got that platinum wire buried deeply in his brain. Or what’s left of it. A hot workout in a car pushes it even deeper:
Her buttons came open and her nipples pricked under my fingers. She pushed me away to get space to swing up her legs, saying words I couldn’t make out. I opened the car door behind me to make more room. In my head that warning bell dinged.

I jerked out her silk blouse, uncoupled the tiny front hook of the lacy brassiere, and released her breasts. She cupped the left one, aiming right at me, and slid her free hand around my neck, prickling the little hairs there. Her lips moved on my ear and I tingled to the rub of words and her warm breath. My hands slid under her skirt. Her panties were too tight to get under. The cloth ripped.

It didn’t matter what the cost. It didn’t matter who got hurt. I was gone way too deep inside myself where caution didn’t exist.
The lovers are soon performining a dance of close encounters punctuated by arguments, worry and anxiety, but stick to their scheme. Luke will steal valuable paintings owned by Tom and then sell them to finance the couple’s getaway. But nothing goes smoothly. Luke is contacted by a mysterious man who wants him to undertake a contract killing. He hangs up—as if that would be the end of such trouble. Later, he’s told that he’s not the only guy Kinnerly’s been in the sack with, not by a longshot. She insists she’s been true to him ever since they reunited. Naturally, he’s not sure what to believe.

(Left) Author Jere Hoar.

It begins to dawn on Luke that maybe Kinnerly is setting him up. But he can’t be sure, and Tom’s cohort Angus is blackmailing him and planning to kill him anyway. The local district attorney thinks Morris’ death was no accident. The lovers’ carefully constructed house of crooked cards is wobbling with fear and threats of more violence. When Luke finds his dog badly wounded, he realizes Angus has to go. He gets his crossbow and sneaks up on the man.
My crossbow sight V’d on his belly. The stiff trigger jerked under my forefinger. A bolt whirred across the distance and nailed Angus to the tree behind him. His rifle flew out of his hands, flipped end over end and hit the ground.

Angus looked down. The crossbow bolt stood in his middle. His face reddened as if he were constipated. He said
ummm … ummm in an angry buzz.
As Angus begs for help, he tells Luke that he’s “had” Kinnerly as well. But c’mon, get me to a doctor and I’ll leave you alone. Luke replies with another arrow to his throat.

Although Jere Hoar’s narrative follows a familiar noir path, he embellishes The Hit with plenty of local Southern color. Luke’s skill as a tracker and hunter who knows dogs, plays a key part in the story. The violence here is rendered with imagination and verve. And even though Luke is not awfully bright, it’s not hard to root for the poor sap—those devious women are hard to handle! (He does his best.)

Late in this tale, we witness an exciting, vibrantly depicted fight. Luke is attacked by three men and a woman—a set-up—and he can only defend himself with an axe handle retrieved from his car. Even as he’s taking the brunt of a metal pipe from one assailant, “a weight landed on my back, scissors locked around my waist, an arm twisted my head, and nails peeled the skin of my face. The raw tracks across my cheeks and nose burned and stung. I felt body heat, and weight, and hot breath and the tickle of long hair, and smelled lilac perfume. She wears perfume to an ambush? I wondered.

He whups the lot of them, but lands in the ER.

As the two lovers carry on with their getaway plan, we know that somehow it will implode or just collapse … after all, this is noir!

To this reader, The Hit is a regrettably “forgotten” book. Despite its rather perfunctory plot, there is much to admire overall; and with plenty of sex and violence, what’s not to like? Jere Hoar, who died in 2021 at age 91, didn’t turn out much fiction in his lifetime. One is left to wonder what he might have accomplished had he written more.

Time to Reconsider “Chinatown”?

In a fine essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Michael Rubenstein, an associate professor of English at Stony Brook University and author of the forthcoming book, “Chinatown” at 50 or, Seeing Oil Through Cinema, chews over that 1974 private-eye film’s legacy, its newly shaky place in cinematic history, and efforts to restore it to public prominence. The article begins:
Released on June 20, 1974, Chinatown has been part of the cultural record for 50 years. In 1991, it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. In 2010, when Chinatown was 36 years old—the same age as Jack Nicholson when he starred in the movie, when he was, by broad critical consensus, at the peak of his star power—a poll of The Guardian’s top critics proclaimed it “the best film of all time.” So, we might take the occasion of its 50th birthday in 2024 to celebrate a consecrated classic. Or we might notice instead that today, 14 years on from its coronation as best of all time—a ridiculous piece of clickbait anyway—Chinatown seems to have dropped off of a lot of best-of lists altogether. Well into middle age, the film seems now to have passed its prime. Much like a 50-year-old man. Much like me.

If it’s all downhill from here, one can always look back. Even when it was new,
Chinatown was a nostalgia machine, generating cinematic pleasure from Hollywood’s 1974 recreation of 1937 Los Angeles. Over the last few years, a couple of fiftysomething Hollywood gentlemen have been conspiring to do the time warp again. David Fincher is rumored to be behind a Netflix series based on Jake Gittes’s backstory as a rookie beat cop in the eponymous district of Chinatown. And Ben Affleck has optioned Sam Wasson’s best-selling 2020 book about the making of Chinatown, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood; if the film gets made, I imagine we’ll see the next generation of Hollywood royalty claim its inheritance by pretending to be the last one. And if I sound like I’m sneering, rest assured that I will be watching all of it, mouth agape in enraptured abandon.

Because I also love
Chinatown. I’m fascinated by both the world it depicts and the world that made it. There is no shortage of writing on these subjects; Chinatown needs no recovering from obscurity. So, what else needs to be said? One thing that does need saying before proceeding is this: the reason for Chinatown’s declining critical reputation is probably not its age. At least part of the reason is certainly because the #MeToo movement has since rumbled the film’s reputation by reminding us that its director is a confessed statutory rapist and a fugitive from the law. That might even be the whole reason, and it might even be a just reason.
Click here to enjoy the remainder of Rubenstein’s piece.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Plumping for Kiwi “Bests”

Organizers of New Zealand’s annual Ngaio Marsh Awards have released their longlist of 12 nominees for the 2024 Best Novel prize:

Dice, by Claire Baylis (Allen & Unwin)
The Caretaker, by Gabriel Bergmoser (HarperCollins)
Ritual of Fire, by D.V. Bishop (Macmillan)
Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
Pet, by Catherine Chidgey (Te Herenga Waka University Press)
El Flamingo, by Nick Davies (YBK)
Double Jeopardy, by Stef Harris (Quentin Wilson)
The Quarry, by Kim Hunt (Spiral Collectives)
Devil’s Breath, by Jill Johnson (Black & White/Bonnier)
Going Zero, by Anthony Mccarten (Macmillan)
Home Before Night, by J.P. Pomare (Hachette)
Expectant, by Vanda Symon (Orenda)

Named in honor of Golden Age detective fictionist Ngaio Marsh, these prizes “celebrate Kiwi excellence in one of the world’s most popular storytelling forms,” says Ngaio Marsh Awards founder Craig Sisterson. Finalists in not only this category, but also Best First Novel and Best Kids/YA, are expected to be announced in early August. Winners are to be fêted during a special event held in association with WORD Christchurch in late August.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The Prince of Light Fingers

(Above) New York in the 1920s—Arthur Barry’s burgling heyday.

Sometimes it seems as if I spent my entire boyhood watching It Takes a Thief. Although my parents deemed me far too young to see that 1968-1970 ABC-TV series when it aired originally, I caught up with the show years later in weekend reruns. It starred Robert Wagner (previously cast in movies such as The Pink Panther and Harper) as Alexander Mundy, an oh-so-suave cat burglar, pickpocket, and master of disguise, who—in exchange for his release from prison—went to work for America’s fictional SIA (Secret Intelligence Agency), employing his criminal talents for espionage purposes instead. The program was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 romantic thriller, To Catch a Thief, but was also a part of the late-1960s TV spy craze (which had earlier given birth to such classic dramas as The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and Mission: Impossible).

It Takes a Thief was broadcast for only three seasons, yet it left behind 66 hour-long episodes—all of which I watched over and over and over again, much to the dismay of my mother, who believed I should be out playing or doing homework rather than relishing Wagner’s efforts to deceive espionage agents and seduce lovely (and sometimes dangerous) young women. But in a sense I was doing homework, consuming the show in search of expertise, for I had convinced myself that I wanted to be Alexander Mundy when I grew up.

While that never happened, It Takes a Thief did leave me with a lifelong interest in stories about accomplished—and, especially, sophisticated—larcenists. Which explains why I was hungry to read Dean Jobb’s A Gentleman and a Thief: The Daring Jewel Heists of a Jazz Age Rogue, released recently by Algonquin Books.

You will likely remember that Jobb (pronounced like robe, rather than robb) penned one of my favorite non-fiction books of 2021, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer, about remorseless Canadian poisoner Thomas Neill Cream; and before that, he drew widespread acclaim for his 2015 work, Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation, which examined the career of Leo Koretz, a Ponzi-schemer of the 1920s who, according to The New York Times, was “the most resourceful confidence man in the United States.” Now, in A Gentleman and a Thief, he looks back at Arthur Barry—an American jewel thief known for his debonair mien, audacious escapades, and deep-pocketed victims—who, for more than half a dozen years, stole an estimated half-million dollars in precious stones annually. Not bad for a former juvenile delinquent whose own mother thought him destined for either the gutter or the hoosegow.

Arthur Barry was born to working-class Irish parents in the industrial town of Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1896. His path to a lifetime of criminality was not perfectly straight, but seemed nonetheless fated. He became a safecracker’s errand boy in puberty, and at 15 committed his first home break-in. “He always said he was big for his age,” Jobb recalled in a recent interview with CrimeReads. “After he started hanging out with an older crowd of guys who did things to make five bucks here and there, he became a courier for a fellow who was making explosives for safecrackers. Barry would take, by train, suitcases stuffed with cotton and a bottle of homemade nitroglycerin. In a great story Barry related, he said the fellow told him, Don’t shake it. And don’t move it too much. And try not to drop it.”

His mother wasn’t wrong about Barry being a likely candidate for incarceration: his first jailing came in 1914, after he was wrongly convicted of a burglary in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Barry was remanded to a reformatory, but subsequently enlisted with the U.S. Army, and in 1918 was sent overseas during World War I. In France, he performed heroic service as a medic, was wounded in the leg and gassed, and then returned to America in 1919, taking up residence in New York City. However, with a criminal record and no trade skills, honest employment was hard to find. “The men in the first waves of soldiers sent home from France claimed most of the jobs,” Jobb writes, “as well as all of the glory.” Barry weighed his options, and determined that his best path to prosperity was on the wrong side of the law. “The thought of violence repelled me,” Barry later contended, but he reasoned that stealing expensive gems was “clean-cut and sportsmanlike,” and “as close to a victimless crime as he could imagine.” He was once quoted as saying, “People rich enough to own jewels never had to worry about their next meal.” And insurance payments could assuage the pain of their losses.

Between 1920 and 1927, Arthur Barry proved himself to be a crackerjack “second-story man,” using ladders to break into the bed chambers of the rich and famous—sometimes while the estate owners were entertaining friends downstairs—and purloining their precious possessions. He found many of his “marks” (he preferred to call them “clients”) via newspaper society pages, and lacked not at all for boldness in his capers. Clad in a tuxedo and exercising a glib tongue, he’d crash parties thrown at the estates of upper-crust residents on Long Island and in Westchester County, New York, as well as in Connecticut, in order to case them for future nighttime invasion. Among his targets were a Rockefeller, an Oklahoma oil tycoon, a member of the British royal family, a famous polo player, and a legendary Wall Street investor. At the height of his nefarious career, Barry stole an estimated half-million dollars in precious stones annually. His biggest score was in Manhattan in 1925, when he broke into the six-room Plaza Hotel suite of Jessie Donahue, heiress to the Woolworth five-and-dime store fortune, and filched “almost $700,000 in pearls and gems—the equivalent of $10 million today,” according to Jobb.

Before police knew Barry’s identity, the public marveled at his felonious exploits, dubbing him a “Prince of Thieves” and an “Aristocrat of Crime.” Newspapers commented on his courage and athleticism; after one mansion robbery in 1925, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle opined that anyone capable of scaling the building’s façade so easily “would make some of the stunt artists of the movies envious.” On occasions when he was confronted by his victims, he exhibited a polite and calming comportment. Once, he relinquished a pair of pricey pinky rings he was assured held sentimental value to the owners, leading one of those “clients” to tell reporters, “I know he’s terrible, but isn’t he charming?”

(Left) Dean Jobb (photo by Kerry Oliver).

“These were serious crimes,” the author reminded CrimeReads. “He violated people’s privacy. He shattered their sense of security. But he didn’t hurt anyone. And he did perfect this soothing approach, which really makes him a different kind of criminal. It certainly made him a more enjoyable character to bring to the page. He didn’t have a cruel streak or anything.”

Barry was also something of a romantic. In 1924, he was introduced to Anna Blake, the wife of a New York City taxi entrepreneur and a Democratic Party organizer, who was then in her mid-30s (several years older than Barry). In short order, Anna’s husband died and she became increasingly friendly with Barry, eventually marrying him, apparently unaware of his criminal endeavors or the fact that some of the jewelry he gave to her was “hot.” Not until the law finally caught up with Arthur Barry in 1927 did Anna realize the cause of his frequent absences (to pull off heists) and that his money didn’t come from gambling windfalls. Yet she didn’t abandon him, nor did he leave her open to prosecution as an accomplice in his crimes. Rather, he confessed to dozens of burglaries to protect her.

Like Jobb’s studies of Thomas Neill Cream and Leo Koretz, A Gentleman and a Thief is the sort of popular history that might enthrall even readers who generally shy away from non-fiction historical accounts. Told with brio, historical details galore, dramatic chapter openings, and attributes familiar from top-drawer crime fiction, it’s a love story, to boot. It is, in the end, a gem of tale.

So delighted was I with this account, that right after turning its last page, I contacted Jobb’s publisher and arranged for an e-mail interview with the author. I wound up asking him about his background in journalism and teaching; the public’s enduring interest in true crime yarns; how he selects the subjects of his books; the next historical crime figure he intends to tackle; and much more.

J. Kingston Pierce: How long now have you been a journalism professor at the University of King’s College, in Halifax, Nova Scotia?

Dean Jobb: I started teaching research, investigative reporting, and media law courses part-time in the School of Journalism in the 1990s. I became a professor and full-time member of the journalism faculty in 2004 and joined the faculty of the university’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-fiction program in 2016. I teach writing-craft courses and oversee a cohort of students during their two years in the program, as they work on a non-fiction manuscript.

JKP: Before you embarked on writing books, you were a reporter. When and how did you join that estimable profession, and how long did you work as a reporter? How did it lead you into academia?

DJ: I joined the Halifax Daily News in 1983 and moved to the city’s Chronicle Herald in 1984, where I covered crime and the courts, pursued investigative projects, and served as an editor. My part-time teaching at King’s led to the full-time appointment in 2004, when I left the Herald. I continue to write for newspapers and magazines.

JKP: You’ve been writing books about historical crimes for more than three decades, beginning with Shades of Justice in 1988. What was it that first drew you to this colorful, if sometimes gruesome subject matter?

DJ: I graduated from university with a history degree and when I got my first job as a reporter, I was assigned to the legal beat. Since I was immersed in covering crimes and trials and I was interested in history, I began researching and writing feature stories that re-created intriguing and forgotten crimes of the past—murders, swindles, bank robberies, whatever. The quirkier and lesser-known the case, the better.

JKP: There seems to have been a significant uptick in public interest in true crime subjects over the last decade or so. What do you think is responsible for that development?

DJ: True crime has always been popular. While the number of books, podcasts, and documentaries has exploded in recent years, you only have to dig into a century-old newspaper to see how much our ancestors also craved their true crime hit. Crimes were reported with lurid headlines and in remarkable detail, with whole pages often devoted to verbatim transcripts of trial testimony. “If there is one thing more than another of which the average man likes to read the details,” the Chicago Daily Tribune noted in 1880, “that thing is a first-class murder with the goriest of trimmings.” Today’s intense interest in true crime would come as no surprise to a time-traveler from the past.

JKP: We’re all familiar with George Santayana’s aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what are the specific benefits of knowing the history of human criminality?

DJ: Crimes can help us understand what the past was really like. A murder or other heinous crime catches people—crooks and many witnesses alike—on their worst behavior, stripping away the veneer of respectability and good-old-days nostalgia and shining a light on how people behaved and what they were capable of. And many crimes are a product of their time and place, exposing the role wealth, class, privilege, and prejudice played not only in the commission of the crime, but in how the police and the courts dealt with offenders and whether justice was done.

JKP: You started out by writing books about “mischief, mayhem, and murder” in Nova Scotia. What convinced you to finally tackle historical crime of potentially greater interest to a larger audience?

DJ: Many of my early true crime stories ranged beyond Nova Scotia’s borders—mutinies on the high seas, offenders who fled to other parts of Canada or to the United States, newcomers who killed or robbed banks, and even some Confederate pirates and raiders who took refuge in the province during the Civil War. The first major international crime story I uncovered was the arrest of fugitive Chicago con man Leo Koretz at a Halifax hotel in 1924.

JKP: So how did you first come across “slick, smooth-talking, charismatic lawyer” Koretz, whose story you tell so brilliantly in The Empire of Deception? And did you right away see it as a gold mine?

DJ: I was at the Nova Scotia Provincial Archives [in Halifax], flipping through a card index under the heading “Crimes and Criminals,” when I spotted an entry with a brief description of Koretz’s arrest. It listed a few newspaper accounts describing how he had duped investors—who believed he controlled vast oilfields in Panama—promised and paid enormous returns, and swindled them out of millions of dollars. It was a Ponzi scheme and Koretz had mastered it for almost two decades before Boston’s Charles Ponzi came along and gave the scam its name. Koretz was the Bernie Madoff of the 1920s. I knew instantly it was a great story and fabulous fodder for a book.

JKP: After deciding to plumb Koretz’s short but eventful life, how long did it take you to accumulate all the material you felt you needed in order to write the book?

DJ: It took a lot of detective work, both here in Nova Scotia and in Chicago (as well as in New York City, where Koretz lived on the lam before fleeing to Canada). I picked away at the research for many years, in between work commitments and researching other books. The story had never been fully told and piecing it together—and finding every news report, document, court record, and scrap of information I could—became as much an obsession as a challenge.

JKP: How often do you think you have found the perfect historical crime subject for a book, only to later realize it does not boast enough intrigue or complexity? Can you give an example?

DJ: I have researched several true crime projects that looked promising but lacked the scope, surviving records, or compelling story and characters needed for a book. One that stands out is the beauty queen who killed her wealthy and abusive husband, a theater impresario, in their villa on the French Riviera. Her trial was an international press sensation during the Depression, her ordeal was the basis for a Hollywood movie, and my research unearthed the material needed to tell the story. But the case seemed to lack the impact and drama needed for a good book. I’ll likely rework it into a feature article at some point.

JKP: On top of teaching and producing books, you’ve been writing a column about historical crime for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine since 2018. Do some of the subjects you reject for book-length treatment show up in that column, “Stranger Than Fiction,” or do you go searching for different sorts of stories to address there?

DJ: These are true crime stories that catch my eye as I’m reading and doing research. As the column’s title suggests, I’m looking for quirky, untold stories as well as the real-life crimes that inspired writers of crime fiction.

JKP: The poisonings by Dr. Thomas Neill Cream seem ideally suited for book-length scrutiny. When did you first learn of his crimes?

DJ: I had heard of Dr. Cream and spotted news reports about his case now and then while researching other crimes of the Victorian Era. He’s still listed as a possible suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders—despite the fact he was behind bars in an Illinois prison in 1888, when the infamous Whitechapel killings occurred in London—and as I recall, one of those lists caught my eye.

JKP: Cream’s tale is incredible, partly because he was able to get away with his misdeeds for so long, thanks to the fact that police departments—especially those operating on opposite sides of the Atlantic—didn’t communicate well during the late 19th century. But it also benefits from his having been an early example of a serial killer, who “murdered simply for the sake of murder,” rather than having a motive rooted in emotion or profit. How important was it to you that you explore the historical context of his career, in addition to his individual slayings and eventual downfall?

DJ: Dr. Cream’s weapon of choice was strychnine and he convinced most of his victims to take medicine he concocted that contained a lethal dose of the deadly poison. As I took a closer look at his crimes, I realized there was more to the story than how he murdered at least nine women and one man in three countries. The real questions to be asked were, how did he get away with his crimes for so long, and how was he finally caught in 1892? That’s a bigger story that illuminates the misogyny and class divisions of the times and exposes how wealth, privilege, primitive forensics, and crude policing methods allowed him to kill with impunity.

JKP: As you observe, reports about the Ripper frequently loop in Cream, if only because his last utterance, as he awaited the grip of the hangman’s noose in 1892, was allegedly, “I am Jack the ...” Is there any validity to stories of that abbreviated dying confession?

DJ: There’s no evidence Cream ever said those words. The claim was made in a brief article published in a British newspaper in 1902—a decade after Cream was hanged—but it was widely republished and a legend was born. I hope my book, and my research showing the origins of this myth, may finally put to rest the notion he was “Cream the Ripper” as well as a serial poisoner.

JKP: I appreciated your care with historical context again while reading A Gentleman and a Thief. On top of Arthur Barry’s feats as a confidence trickster and proficient pilferer of expensive gemstones, you acquaint us with the criminal environment of 1920s New York, the staggering differences between that period’s haves and have-nots, prison conditions of the time, and the histories of some of Barry’s acquaintances and victims, from Harry Houdini and the Prince of Wales to Jessie Donahue, Lord Mountbatten, and Percy Rockefeller. It seems you do as much research into the milieu surrounding your criminal protagonists as you do into the protagonists themselves. That must surely add many hours to your task of producing a book. Is such research as satisfying to you as it is to your readers?

DJ: Writing can be hard work but research is fun, so it’s hard to stop looking and to start writing. Research is detective work, treasure hunts, and mystery-solving rolled into one. I’m re-creating a lost world and inviting readers to travel back in time, and that means weaving in vivid details of what life was like in Barry’s glitzy, Jazz Age, live-for-the-moment world without detracting from the action and his story. My goal is to bring the past to life for readers.

JKP: How do you recognize that moment when it’s finally time stop all your researching, and start writing?

DJ: Ideas for scenes and chapters emerge as I’m doing my research. When a part of the story seems to be coming together, I begin to write it and focus my research on filling in the information needed to produce a draft of that part of the book. I revise and add details to these drafts as my research continues and I find new information.

JKP: You observe that in addition to being audacious, Arthur Barry was a successful “second-story man” because he planned his break-ins carefully. That doesn’t seem like rocket science, though. Wouldn’t planning have been useful to all such thieves? Why did Barry know to concentrate on planning more than his light-fingered rivals?

DJ: Some of his precautions were obvious, such as wearing gloves to prevent leaving fingerprints. But donning a tux to crash parties at posh estates? Posing as a repairman so he could enter a mansion and disable the burglar alarm? Pretending to be a police officer and calling in a phony accident so he could trace the license plate of a limousine carrying a socialite wearing expensive jewelry? Reading a jewelers’ trade magazine to teach himself which gems he should steal and how much they were likely to be worth? Barry was as imaginative as he was meticulous, and seemed determined to master his chosen profession, jewel stealing. There’s a reason he got away with his crimes—and jewelry worth $60 million today—for seven years.

JKP: Like Cary Grant’s character in the 1955 film To Catch a Thief, Arthur Barry was gallant and debonair for a cat burglar. He also had a romantic side. Well into his career in crime, Barry fell in love with a widow named Anna Blake, who would become his prime source of support and, later, his fellow fugitive. How important was their romance to your development of Barry’s story?

(Above) This November 1, 1932, illustration from The Daily Notes in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, shows Blake with husband Barry.

DJ: Anna Blake plays a vital part in this story. When Barry was caught in 1927, he confessed to ensure she was not charged as his accomplice (she insisted she had no idea he was a burglar, and my research confirmed this). Blake stood by him and when she became seriously ill [from cancer] in 1929, Barry staged a spectacular prison break to be with her. They lived as fugitives for three years. A key to telling her story was my discovery of a series of newspaper features published in 1933 in which she revealed details of their strange and dangerous life together. This became a love story within a true crime story.

JKP: Were you at all intimidated, when preparing your own Arthur Barry book, by the fact that Neil Hickey had published a well-known work on that same subject, The Gentleman Was a Thief, back in 1961? Was there much information you found that Hickey did not have?

DJ: Hickey’s book was incredibly useful—Barry cooperated with him and revealed a lot about his life and crimes. It was a great starting point for my research, but I unearthed reams of new material and discovered there was much more to the story. Barry only recounted a few of his major burglaries in his interviews with Hickey and I was able to tie him to dozens of others. And at times Barry tried to rewrite his past. He claimed to have planned and executed almost all of his burglaries by himself, for instance, even though he worked with an accomplice—James Monahan, a childhood friend—for years.

JKP: You teach creative non-fiction. What are the elements of A Gentleman and a Thief that would demonstrate clearly to your students how to organize and tell history to a general audience?

DJ: The creative part of creative non-fiction is the way the story is told, using the tools of fiction writers—vivid scenes, compelling characters, dialogue drawn from the historical record—to tell a true story with the drama and narrative drive of a novel. It’s not, however, an invitation to fictionalize or to embellish. You can’t make up stuff. That’s why deep research is so vital. You can’t imagine and you can assume, so you have to find the details and quotations and descriptions needed to tell a gripping, page-turning story.

JKP: Finally, what forgotten crime story are you working on next?

DJ: I’m already working on a new book for my publishers, Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada—a real-life whodunit with the working title Murder in the Cards. Joseph Elwell, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the game of bridge, was shot to death in his Manhattan home in 1920. Elwell’s books on bridge and his skills as a gambler at the card table, the racetrack, and on Wall Street made him rich. His murder was front-page news for months as New York’s crime reporters and top detectives scrambled to crack the case. There were plenty of theories, possible motives, and suspects, including prominent New York businessmen and socialites, former lovers—along with their jilted boyfriends and husbands—underworld figures, and racetrack rivals. No one was ever arrested, however, and the murder remains unsolved. The New York Times called it “the perfect mystery.” I’ll re-create the crime and the police and press investigations, assess the clues, and answer a century-old question: who killed Joe Elwell?

LCC Books a Golden Gate Return

Uh-oh, this opportunity is going to be hard to pass up. The 2026 Left Coast Crime convention is slated to take place in San Francisco, California. Although I used to be a frequent visitor to that enchanting, historic City by the Bay, I haven’t been there since 2010, when Bouchercon took place at its waterfront Hyatt Regency. (See my two-part report on that gathering, beginning here.)

Maybe it’s time for me to pay another call on my old haunts.

Blogger/LCC committee member Janet Rudolph notes that the conference is heading back to San Francisco for “the first time since Left Coast Crime #1 and #2 were held there in 1991 and 1992.” Events are scheduled from February 26 through March 1, and the venue will be the same Hyatt Regency that hosted Bouchercon XLI.

Sunday, July 07, 2024

Surprises and Prizes Galore

Directly on the heels of this week’s announcement regarding winners of the 2024 British Dagger Awards come notices about five additional prizes of interest to Rap Sheet readers.

First off, the Killer Nashville convention has released its lists of top choices for the 2024 Silver Falchion Awards. There are 17 categories of contenders; below are books vying for Best Mystery honors.

Mouse in the Box, by Lewis Allan (‎Stretched Studio)
Three Strides Out, by V.S. Anderson (Virginia S. Anderson)
Parallel Secrets, by M.L. Barrs (Wild Rose Press)
Indigo Road, by Reed Bunzel (Coffeetown Press)
Play the Fool, by Lina Chern (Bantam)
Kaleidoscope of Secrets, by Sandy Clements
(Independently published)
Beautiful Death, by John Deal (Dark Lake Press)
Murder at the Royal Albert, by Gerald Elias (Level Best)
Black Cordite, White Snow, by Nate Granzow (Independently published)
The Smoking Gun in Music City, by Gerry Hyder (Gerry Hyder)
Secrets Don’t Sink, by K.B. Jackson (Level Best)
BeatNikki’s Café, by Renee James (Amble Press)
Mourning Bay, by Kay Jennings (Paris Communications)
Missing Clarissa, by Ripley Jones (Wednesday)
The School of Homer, by Alexander Marriott (Vanguard Press)
The Empty Kayak, by Jodé Millman (Level Best)
Hollywood, by Howard Owen (Permanent Press)
Backstabbed on Broadway, by Carolyn Quinn (Blue Topaz)
The Last Thing Claire Wanted, by Karin Fitz Sanford (Level Best)
Vendetta in the Valley, by Drew Strickland (Independently published)

Killer Nashville has also made known its top picks for this year’s Claymore Award, a commendation given for the “best first 50 pages of an unpublished manuscript, play, or screenplay.” Click right here to see those fortunate competitors.

A list of finalists for the Silver Falchion Awards and Claymore Awards is expected sometime soon. Winners will be revealed during a Killer Nashville Awards Dinner on August 23, in Nashville, Tennessee.

* * *

Next we have the nominees for the 2023 Shirley Jackson Awards, named for the author of The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and other acckauned works of horror and mystery fiction. These annual awards recognize “outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” There are six divisions of candidates for these prizes; here are those in contention for Best Novel:

Brainwyrms, by Alison Rumfitt (Nightfire)
The Daughters of Block Island, by Christa Carmen (Thomas & Mercer)
Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Stephen Graham Jones (Saga Press U.S./Titan UK)
Every Version Ends in Death, by Aliya Chaudhry (Haunt)
The Militia House, by John Milas (Henry Holt)
The Reformatory, by Tananarive Due (Saga Press U.S./Titan UK)

These prizes are to be presented on July 13 during the Readercon 33 conference on Imaginative Literature, in Quincy, Massachusetts.

* * *

The Munsey Award, conferred annually during PulpFest, takes its moniker from Frank A. Munsey, publisher of the first pulp magazine. It recognizes “someone who has contributed to the betterment of the pulp community through disseminating knowledge, publishing, or other efforts to preserve and to foster interest pulp magazines.”

There are a dozen people in the running for this year’s Munsey, including two who are (or damn well should be) familiar to crime-fiction readers: Gary Phillips, the author of One-Shot Harry and its 2024 sequel, Ash Dark as Night, as well as “a living, breathing homage to pulp culture and aesthetics,” to quote the PulpFest Web site; and Steve Lewis, founder of the magazine-turned-blog Mystery*File, and “a collector of pulps, digest magazines, paperbacks, and hardcovers for over 60 years.” You can learn more about these stalwarts of pulp fiction, plus their fellow Munsey nominees, here.

This year’s PulpFest will take place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from August 1 to 4. The Munsey winner is to be divulged on August 3.

* * *

Finally, I neglected to mention the longlist of rivals for the 2024 Glass Bell Award, a literary accolade sponsored by Goldsboro Books, in London, England. They are:

In Memoriam, by Alice Winn (Viking)
None of This Is True, by Lisa Jewell (Century)
Clytemnestra, by Costanza Casati (Michael Joseph)
The List, by Yomi Adegoke (Fourth Estate)
Yellowface, by Rebecca F. Kuang (Borough Press)
Strange Sally Diamond, by Liz Nugent (Sandycove)
Chain-Gang All Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Harvill Secker)
Weyward, by Emilia Hart (Borough Press)
Lady Macbethad, by Isabelle Schuler (Bloomsbury Raven)
The Silent Man, by David Fennell (Zaffre)
Godkiller, by Hannah Kaner (HarperVoyager)
The Square of Sevens, by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (Mantle)
The Fraud, by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
The Turnglass, by Gareth Rubin (Simon & Schuster)

At least four of those titles—None of This Is True, Strange Sally Diamond, The Silent Man, and The Square of Sevens—fit neatly under the crime/mystery/thriller umbrella. The victor will be made known on September 26, during Goldsboro’s 25 birthday part, and will walk away with £2,000 and “a beautiful, handmade, engraved blue glass bell.”

Saturday, July 06, 2024

PaperBack: “Fright”

Part of a series honoring the late author and blogger Bill Crider.

Fright, by Cornell Woolrich writing as “George Hopley” (Popular Library, 1952). Cover illustration by Rudolph Belarski.

Friday, July 05, 2024

New Talents Among Dagger Champs

Last night, during a “gala dinner” at the Leonardo Royal Hotel in London, England, the British Crime Writers’ Association announced the winners of its coveted 2024 Dagger Awards.

Gold Dagger:
Tell Me What I Am, by Una Mannion (Faber & Faber)

Also nominated: Over My Dead Body, by Maz Evans (Headline); The Secret Hours, by Mick Herron (Baskerville); Small Mercies, by Dennis Lehane (Abacus); Black River, by Nilanjana Roy (Pushkin Vertigo); and Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers, by Jesse Sutanto (HQ)

Ian Fleming Steel Dagger:
Everybody Knows, by Jordan Harper (Faber & Faber)

Also nominated: All the Sinners Bleed, by S.A. Cosby (Headline); Ozark Dogs, by Eli Cranor (Headline); The Mantis, by Kotaro Isaka (Harvill Secker); Gaslight, by Femi Kayode (Raven); and Drowning, by T.J. Newman (Simon & Schuster)

ILP John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger:
In the Blink of an Eye, by Jo Callaghan (Simon & Schuster UK)

Also nominated: The Golden Gate, by Amy Chua (Corvus); The Maiden, by Kate Foster (Mantle); West Heart Kill, by Dann McDorman (Raven); Go Seek, by Michelle Teahan (Headline); and The Tumbling Girl, by Bridget Walsh (Gallic)

Historical Dagger:
Viper's Dream, by Jake Lamar (No Exit Press)

Also nominated: Clara & Olivia, by Lucy Ashe (Magpie); Harlem After Midnight, by Louise Hare Harlem (HQ); A Bitter Remedy, by Alis Hawkins (Canelo); Scarlet Town, by Leonora Nattrass (Viper); and Voices of the Dead, by Ambrose Parry (Canongate)

Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger: My Husband, by Maud Ventura, translated by Emma Ramadan (Hutchinson Heinemann)

Also nominated: Red Queen, by Juan Gómez-Jurado, translated by Nick Caistor (Macmillan); The Sins of Our Fathers, by Åsa Larsson, translated by Frank Perry (Maclehose Press); Nothing Is Lost, by Cloé Mehdi, translated by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions UK); The Consultant, by Im Seong-sun, translated by An Seong Jae (Raven); and The Prey, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, translated by Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton)

ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction: Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, by Nicholas Shakespeare (Vintage)

Also nominated: The Art Thief, by Michael Finkel (Simon & Schuster); No Ordinary Day: Espionage, Betrayal, Terrorism and Corruption—The Truth Behind the Murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, by Matt Johnson with John Murray (Ad Lib); Devil’s Coin: My Battle to Take Down the Notorious OneCoin Cryptoqueen, by Jennifer McAdam with Douglas Thompson (Ad Lib); Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, by Alex Mar (Bedford Square); and How Many More Women?: The Silencing of Women by the Law and How to Stop It, by Jennifer Robinson and Keina Yoshida (Endeavour)

Short Story Dagger: “The Divide,” by Sanjida Kay (from The Book of Bristol, edited by Joe Melia and Heather Marks; Comma Press)

Also nominated: “Safe Enough,” by Lee Child (from An Unnecessary Assassin, edited by Lorraine Stevens; Rivertree); “The Last Best Thing,” by Mia Dalia (from Bang!: An Anthology of Modern Noir Fiction, edited by Andrew Hook; Head Shot Press); “The Also-Rans,” by Benedict J. Jones (from Bang!: An Anthology of Modern Noir Fiction); “The Spendthrift and the Swallow,” by Ambrose Parry (Canongate); and “Best Served Cold,” by F.D. Quinn (from An Unnecessary Assassin)

Dagger in the Library (“for a body of work by an established crime writer that has long been popular with borrowers from libraries”): Anthony Horowitz

Also nominated: Louise Candlish, M.W. Craven, Cara Hunter,
and L.J. Ross

Publishers’ Dagger (“awarded annually to the Best Crime and Mystery Publisher of the Year”): Pushkin Press

Also nominated: Canelo, Headline (Hachette), Joffe Books, Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House); and Simon & Schuster

Debut Dagger (“for the opening of a crime novel by an unpublished writer”): Makoto Murders, by Richard Jerram

Also nominated: Burnt Ranch, by Katherine Ahlert; Unnatural Predators, by Caroline Arnoul; Not a Good Mother, by Karabi Mitra; Long Way Home, by Lynn McCall; The Last Days of Forever, by Jeremy Tinker; and The Blond, by Megan Toogood

Red Herring Award: Jean Briggs and Dea Parkin
Diamond Dagger Recipients: Lynda La Plante and James Lee Burke

A CWA news release quotes Maxim Jakubowski, chair of the Daggers Committee, as calling this “yet another remarkable year of crime writing in which our impartial judges have uncovered a crop of wonderful books. In a year in which many of our ‘big beasts’ had new books, it’s refreshing to see so many new names and talents winning. And a momentous occasion for independent publishers who have swooped on the majority of the awards and, in particular, Faber & Faber who have achieved a rare double of Gold and Steel Daggers.”

(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

The Mystery of Dana Wilson

(Editor’s note: Randal S. Brandt’s fine work has graced both this blog and Killer Covers before, in posts about the inspiration behind David Dodge’s To Catch a Thief, the 1961 Dodge novel Carambola, and paperback cover artist Robert Stanley. Today, he profiles an obscure American mystery writer named Dana Wilson. “I've uncovered a fascinating story,” he told me in pitching this piece. “Hint: after her second marriage she changed her last name to Broccoli.” “Fascinating” is definitely the adjective to describe the results of his digging.)

Before I tell you this story—a story about the literary mystery surrounding a crime novel with one of the strangest titles of all time and the genealogical research that led to its connection to the original James Bond girl—I must tell you a little bit about myself.

I’m a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, where I am Head of Cataloging at the Bancroft Library, the university’s primary special collections and rare books library. As the flagship campus of the University of California system, Berkeley has a long tradition of collecting the literature of California and, since 2013, I have also served as the curator of the California Detective Fiction Collection. This means that I get a small budget to acquire titles of crime and mystery fiction that are set in California. A book that I acquired recently for the collection, with a decidedly odd title, made me take on a third role; I had to put on my fedora and play literary detective to solve the surprising mystery of its author, Dana Wilson.

Dana Wilson published exactly one crime novel. That book, Make with the Brains, Pierre, appeared in 1946 under the Julian Messner imprint. The story is narrated by Pierre Bernet, a French “film cutter” who emigrated to Hollywood to escape the Nazi occupation of France and has been unable to secure work for several years. Finding himself in the middle of a romantic triangle—Pierre is desperately in love with Eleanor, an aspiring young actress, but Eleanor is in love with Joe, who also loves Eleanor but is married and refuses to seek a divorce—Pierre gets involved in a blackmail plot that leads to murder.

Bill Pronzini reviewed the book in 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction and opined that, “despite having one of crime fiction’s worst and most misleading titles,” it is “neither a bad nor a whimsical nor a detective novel” but rather “a grim tale of psychological suspense reminiscent of the work of Cornell Woolrich in its incisive examination of a man destroyed by love, hate, and the dark side of his own soul.” He concluded by declaring the tale “a surprising accomplishment in its evocation of the Gallic character, the postwar Hollywood lifestyle, and the elements of human tragedy.” (Pronzini and Muller 1986, 855)

As I began working on the catalogue record for this novel (library cataloguing is essentially recording and describing a library’s holdings in order to provide access to readers and researchers), I kept coming back to a key question: Who is Dana Wilson?

The book itself, including the original dust jacket, was no help at all. There is no author’s biography, photograph, or blurb on this edition. I didn’t even know if Dana was a man or a woman (and apparently Pronzini didn’t either, as the 1001 Midnights entry is gender-neutral), or whether the name was real or a pseudonym. The Library of Congress, usually the authority on matters of book authorship, was no help whatsoever here. In its catalogue, the novel was entered under the simple heading of “Wilson, Dana,” which was linked to a composer and professor of music born in 1946. Nope, definitely not the author of this 1946 novel. The database contained entries for several other similarly named writers, but none were the one I was looking for. Disambiguating authors from one another and identifying them with the works that they produce is called, in library parlance, “authority control” and is a critical component of cataloguing, so I was determined to do something to distinguish Dana Wilson the mystery writer from the other Dana Wilsons. I turned next to another, usually reliable resource: Allen J. Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV bibliography. Alas, Hubin was no help either, as no additional biographical details were included there.

(Left) Dana Wilson in the 1940s.

“Dana Wilson” is a pretty generic name, and I thought that, without any other data points, I would have a hard time closing in on likely authors using genealogical resources available via the Ancestry database, which has provided me with a wealth of information for tracing authors’ identities. I was just about to give up hope of uncovering this mysterious writer’s identity when I looked through the book one more time and noticed that it contained a dedication, “To Stella, Michael, and Lewis.” Family members? Perhaps Stella was the author’s wife, and Michael and Lewis, his sons? Armed with this additional bit of potential information, I decided to give Ancestry a whirl.

One of the first results that came up was for the recently released 1950 U.S. Census. The record I found was for a Dana Wilson living in Los Angeles and working as a “screen treatments writer” in the movie industry, which seemed a likely occupation for the author of Make with the Brains, Pierre, given the inside-Hollywood angle of the novel. This Dana was female, aged 26, and listed in the census as “wife,” along with Lewis G. Wilson, as head of the household; the census also listed an 8-year-old son, Michael G. Wilson, and a mother-in-law, Stella Natol. I felt pretty confident that I’d found my Dana. What would be the odds of another family quartet with those names? The only thing that surprised me was Dana’s age. If she was 26 in 1950, that meant she would have been only 22 when her novel was published—and she was the mother of a young child at the time!

My second surprise came when I did another search in Ancestry, this time adding an approximate birth date of 1924 and her maiden name, Natol. I immediately landed on the 2004 death record of “Dana Dorothy Natol Broccoli.” The information there included that she was the widow of American film producer Albert R. Broccoli and the mother of Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli.

Wait. What?

As a longtime fan of the James Bond books and films, I immediately recognized the name Albert R. Broccoli. Broccoli and his partner Harry Saltzman were the producers behind the cinematic adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Now, my search took a completely different turn.

A Wikipedia page dedicated to Dana Broccoli revealed more information. It said that she was born Dana Natol in New York City on January 3, 1922 (making her the ripe old age of 24 when her novel was published), and met her first husband, Lewis Wilson, when they were both acting students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at Carnegie Hall. After Dana and Lewis divorced, she married Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli in 1959. When Broccoli and Saltzman formed a holding company to control the licensing and rights to the Bond films, they named it Danjaq S.A., which is a combination of their wives’ first names (Dana Broccoli and Jacqueline Saltzman). After Cubby’s death in 1996, Dana became president of Danjaq and was instrumental in developing the musical theater version of another Ian Fleming work, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. She died at age 82 of cancer on February 29, 2004. Wikipedia also mentioned that Dana had written two novels, Scenario for Murder (1949) and Florinda (1977).

(Right) Scenario for Murder, 1949.

Hubin gives “Scenario for Murder” as the British title of Make with the Brains, Pierre, and the dust jacket of that edition does include an author photograph, depicting an attractive young woman, and a biographical sketch. So that solves the mystery of Dana Wilson.

Or, does it?

Further digging revealed that Dana Wilson Broccoli was a complex woman who led a fascinating life and had a lasting impact on one of the most iconic film series of all time.

It turns out that Dana was actually born Dorothy K. Natoli into an Italian-Irish family in Brooklyn (I haven’t been able to discover what the “K” stands for). Her parents were Giuseppe “Joseph” Natoli and Stella (White) Natoli. Her father was the son of Italian immigrants and a veteran of World War I. Shortly after Dana’s birth, the family name was shortened to Natol, but at the time of her marriage to Lewis Gilbert Wilson on June 7, 1941 (when she was 19 years old), she was still using Dorothy as her first name. The following year their son, Michael, was born in New York.

She likely changed her name to Dana after they moved to Los Angeles to pursue careers in Hollywood. Lewis was first to achieve some level of success. After a couple of bit parts in movies, including one in which he wasn’t even credited, he got his big break. In 1943, Columbia Pictures created the first live-action depiction of the DC Comics superhero Batman in a 15-part serial, and Lewis was cast in the titular role, giving him the distinction of being the first actor ever to portray the Caped Crusader. He then landed several other small parts in various films in 1943 and 1944, but his acting career was put on hold when he enlisted in the U.S. Army on June 27, 1944.

(Above) Douglas Croft and Lewis Wilson played Robin and Batman, respectively, in Columbia Pictures’ Batman film serial.

After Dana’s death, several obituaries reported that their long time apart during World War II had led to the failure of Lewis and Dana’s marriage. Later, during an interview, Dana confirmed that the separation was a turning point in their relationship: “Being separated with the war for five years just changed everything. And when my husband returned, we were two entirely different people. It was inevitable that we would divorce.” (Cork 2000)

However, the exact date of their divorce is unknown. In his autobiography Fragments, film director Andre de Toth, a longtime friend of the Broccolis, recalled meeting Dana “in Hollywood, years before she met Cubby,” remembering her as “a budding writer with a promising future, a single parent bringing up a son,” and noting that “in the forties [that] took guts.” (De Toth 1994, 460) However, aside from the fact that they appeared as a family in the 1950 census, there is evidence that their relationship continued at least into the early 1950s, and de Toth got either his timeline or Dana’s marital status wrong. Lewis remarried in 1956.

What is known is that it was during the war that Dana turned her hand to novel writing. Following the 1946 hardcover publication of Make with the Brains, Pierre, with its dedication to her mother, son, and husband, two cheap paperback editions appeared in 1948 and 1949, re-titled as Uneasy Virtue. Then, also in 1949, the British hardcover came out, this time re-titled as Scenario for Murder, with its dust jacket author blurb identifying her as a “wife, mother, actress and producer” living “in Hollywood with her actor-producer husband and small son.”

In 1950, Dana Wilson’s Hollywood acting career got started with a bit part in a film noir called Once a Thief starring Cesar Romero and June Havoc. Then, in 1951, Dana won her first (and only) lead role, as the Queen in Wild Women, opposite Lewis, who also had a lead role. If they were still married at the time, and if Lewis had anything to do with Dana taking that part, that truly awful film could very well have provided ample grounds for divorce.

(Left) Dana Wilson starred in 1951’s Wild Women.

Also, in 1951, both Dana and Lewis were cast in Trigger Tales, the half-hour pilot for a Western TV series that was not picked up. Dana had the supporting female role, in which she turned out to be the villain, but Lewis had a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance with barely a word of dialogue (although he did get to show off the stage-fighting skills he’d honed as Batman in a brief but rowdy dustup with the hero, Trigger Saunders). Then, Lewis got another big break when he was cast as a regular in the half-hour TV crime series Craig Kennedy, Criminologist. Although Donald Woods had the title role, Lewis, as newspaper reporter Walt Jameson, and Sydney Mason, playing New York City police Inspector J.J. Burke, shared nearly as much screen time. The series was short-lived, however, airing for one season (1952-1953) of 26 episodes. Dana guest-starred in one of the episodes near the end of the run.

Dana first met Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli in December 1947. Struggling to earn a living in the movie business, Cubby decided to make some extra cash that year by trying his hand at selling Christmas trees on a street corner in the upscale L.A. suburb of Beverly Hills. In his posthumously published memoir, When the Snow Melts (1998), he described the “incredible, memorable coincidence” that occurred during his brief time in that job:
Early one evening, just before Christmas, a stunning-looking lady stopped at my lot to buy a tree. She had her small son with her. She had raven-black hair, large eyes and pale, delicate features. Having chosen a tree, she wondered where she could get a stand for it. I offered to make one for her, nailing a couple of crossed boards together and then pinning the tree to it. We wished each other ‘Happy Christmas’ and she walked away into the night. No reason for me to believe I’d ever see her again. To chic beauties of that class, when you’ve seen one Christmas tree salesman you’ve seen them all. But not in this particular scenario.

For that lady, my lovely Dana, and I were destined to meet again twelve years later. She remembers my selling her that tree on the corner of Wilshire and Doheny. I recall it even more vividly. There are some customers you just cannot forget.
(Broccoli 1998, 84)
The pair re-encountered each other in 1958, at a New Year’s Eve party at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and at least on Cubby’s end, it was love at second sight. Cubby was a widower, his wife Nedra having succumbed to cancer two years earlier, and a single father of two young children. He got Dana’s phone number before the night was out, but they did not get together again until a few months later, again by chance and this time in New York—they were both out with other dates. They made arrangements to meet once more back in Los Angeles, and after a five-week courtship, they were married on June 21, 1959. The wedding was in Las Vegas. Cary Grant was best man, and Dana’s 16-year-old son, Michael, who had spent the night before the wedding on the town with Cubby, was a hungover member of the wedding party. (Broccoli 1998, 140-41) With both her son and fiancé suffering the effects of the stag night, Dana had a chance at a very different future when Cary Grant came to tell her about the situation. “I did a film once,” he said, “where the best man ran off with the bride. How about it?” Dana laughed off the proposition. “As tempting as it may sound, I don’t think it’s going to happen this time.” (Cork 2000; Sellers 2019, 40)

(Right) “Cubby” Broccoli.

That Las Vegas ceremony was the start of a stunning second act for Dana Wilson. “I married Cubby,” she recalled, “and my life changed completely. I left my home in California. I left my country. I left my friends. I left everything that was familiar to me … But I followed Cubby [to London] and I trusted him, and I knew he was going to make everything all right.” (Cork 2000)

Dana immediately threw herself into her new role. She had always hoped to have a large family and insisted on formally adopting Cubby’s two children, Tony and Tina. On June 18, 1960, Dana gave birth to a daughter, Barbara Dana Broccoli, and, as Cubby wrote, “now [the] family was complete.” (Broccoli 1998, 147)

It was at about this time that Cubby met Harry Saltzman. Cubby had long wanted to film Fleming’s James Bond novels, but had never been able to secure the option. Saltzman had the option, which was about to expire, but could not convince anyone to finance him. Cubby had the connections in Hollywood to get the project off the ground and the pair entered into a partnership. They inked a deal with United Artists for $1 million on June 21, 1961 (Cubby and Dana’s second wedding anniversary), and the rest is movie history. (Broccoli 1998, 151-153)

Although Dana’s name never appears in the credits of any Bond film, she was an active behind-the-scenes partner to her husband and her fingerprints are all over the series:
When Cubby and Harry were casting the lead role in Dr. No, they became interested in a young Scotsman with limited screen credits named Sean Connery. There are many versions of how Connery came to the producers’ attention, but it is generally accepted that the key to him getting the part lay with Dana Broccoli. (Pfeiffer and Lisa 1993, 14, 42, 55) Cubby thought he had terrific potential, but was unsure that he had the requisite sex appeal to play James Bond. So he asked Dana to take a look at the only footage he had available of Connery, the 1959 Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People. “Dana’s reaction,” Cubby recalled, “was immediate: ‘That’s our Bond!’” (Broccoli 1998, 165; Duncan 2015, 33) Dana confirmed this story: “I was just knocked out by [Connery]. I thought he was just incredible.” (Cork 2000; Field and Chowdhury 2015, 60)

As a writer herself, Dana contributed to several scripts, making practical, informed, and helpful suggestions. As they struggled to put together a script for The Spy Who Loved Me (14 writers had tried and failed to come up with a coherent story), Cubby and Dana, themselves, “sat and talked for hours, with Dana scribbling ideas down on paper” and “rewrote the whole story.” When they presented their new screenplay to director Lewis Gilbert, he “said it was the first time a producer had come to him with a storyline that worked.” (Duncan 2015, 262) Barbara Broccoli later claimed that “all the major decisions [Cubby] made he discussed with her. It was a real partnership.” (Sellers 2019, 114; Cork 2000)

(Above) Maryam d'Abo, Timothy Dalton, Barbara Broccoli, Albert R. Broccoli, Dana Broccoli, and John Glen attend an event celebrating the release of the Bond film The Living Daylights (1987).

Dana often functioned as an unofficial casting director. In For Your Eyes Only, she recommended Topol for his role and gave final approval on casting Julian Glover. (Field and Chowdhury 2015, 328-29) She “was absolutely convinced from the start that [Timothy Dalton] would make a first-class Bond” and pressed Cubby to cast him as Roger Moore’s successor; and she helped convince Dalton to accept the role. (Broccoli 1998, 280-81) Many of the actresses in the series remember that she was part of the casting process and had some influence in how the women were portrayed. (d’Abo and Cork 2003, 174)

She provided unswerving support and expert advice to Cubby during his legal battles with Harry Saltzman. The breakup of the Broccoli-Saltzman partnership in 1975 was marked by accusations, lawsuits, and hard feelings. Michael Wilson, who had spent the previous two years at a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm, came to London to help on the legal side, and Cubby credited Dana with giving him the strength to see it through: “But for Dana’s fantastic resources and devotion, I might have thrown in the towel. As it was, we took on the battle of a lifetime—and won.” (Broccoli 1998, 231)

On December 5, 1976, Dana christened the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios, which had been constructed specially for the filming of The Spy Who Loved Me, by breaking a bottle of champagne over the conning tower of the American submarine. (Owen and Burford 2000, 119)

At the 1982 Oscars ceremony, the Academy bestowed its highest honor, the Irving G. Thalberg Award, on Cubby Broccoli. Roger Moore, who was in the middle of his long run portraying James Bond, was tasked with making the presentation. As Moore remembered, Cubby and Dana “were terrified that I would make light of the situation and say something silly.” Consequently, during rehearsals, “Dana sat right at the front of the auditorium to ensure I stuck to the script. I did indeed stick to the script, and Cubby accepted his award with great pride and modesty.” (Moore 2008, 244-45)

Following Cubby’s death in 1996, Dana assumed the leadership of Danjaq and oversaw the transition of production duties to her children, Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, who are still running the operation today.
Curiously, aside from that brief mention of the British title, Scenario for Murder, on Dana’s Wikipedia page, none of the sources that I uncovered refer in any way to Make with the Brains, Pierre. In 1977, Dana returned to fiction writing, penning Florinda, a historical novel set in 8th-century Spain, which was apparently inspired while scouting locations for the Bond series. Even the dust jacket copy of that book claims that it was her first novel. And, unlike Pierre, Florinda at least merits a mention in Cubby’s autobiography. Dana, herself, adapted the novel into a musical that had a modestly successful run in Los Angeles in 1995 and was revived as La Cava, which played in London’s West End in 2000-2001.

(Left) The 1977 novel Florinda, with cover art by Robert McGinnis.

Nothing in my previous experience in identifying crime writers and expanding on their biographies had prepared me for what I would find when I went looking for Dana Wilson, the author of an obscure 1940s Hollywood mystery novel. I found a young woman who carved out a career for herself in Hollywood, as both a writer and an actor, who turned her talents to psychological suspense fiction and made her way as a single mother. Then, in her stunning second act, she became one of the architects of the most famous and successful film franchise in history. Not only did Dana Natol Wilson Broccoli live twice, she was the original Bond girl.

Broccoli, Albert R., with Donald Zec. 1998. When the Snow Melts: The Autobiography of Cubby Broccoli. London: Boxtree.

Cork, John, dir. 2000. “Cubby Broccoli: The Man Behind Bond.” Diamonds Are Forever, Blu-ray Disc. Directed by Guy Hamilton. Beverly Hills, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc., 2012.

d’Abo, Maryam, and John Cork. 2003. Bond Girls Are Forever: The Women of James Bond. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

De Toth, Andre. 1994. Fragments: Portraits from the Inside. London: Faber and Faber.

Field, Matthew, and Ajay Chowdhury. 2015. Some Kind of Hero, 007: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Duncan, Paul, ed. 2015. The James Bond Archives. Cologne: Taschen.

Moore, Roger, with Gareth Owen. 2008. My Word Is My Bond: A Memoir. New York: Collins.

Owen, Gareth, and Brian Burford. 2000. The Pinewood Story: The Authorised History of the World’s Most Famous Film Studio. London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd.

Pfeiffer, Lee, and Philip Lisa. 1993. The Films of Sean Connery. New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Pronzini, Bill, and Marcia Muller. 1986. 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction. New York: Arbor House.

Sellers, Robert. 2019. When Harry Met Cubby: The Story of the James Bond Producers. Gloucestershire: The History Press.

Release date: July 16, 1943
Trailer on YouTube: (other trailers available)
Full film on Tubi:>

Once a Thief (1950)
Release date: July 7, 1950
Full film on Internet Archive:

Wild Women, aka Bowanga, Bowanga: White Sirens of Africa (1951)
Release date: September 23, 1951
Clip on YouTube: (featuring Dana Wilson as the Queen and Lewis Wilson as the “strong white man”)
Full film on Plex:
Full film on Internet Archive:

“Gun Blazers,” episode of Trigger Tales (1951)
Full film on YouTube: (fight scene starts at 13:45)

“The Golden Dagger,” S1, E24, Craig Kennedy, Criminologist (1952)
This episode is not available, but several others, all prominently featuring Lewis Wilson, can be found on YouTube:

READ MORE:Inside the Family Behind the James Bond Empire,” by Cari Beauchamp (Town & Country).