Monday, September 16, 2019

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Dead Beat Scroll,” by Mark Coggins

(Editor’s note: This is the 86th entry in The Rap Sheet’s surprisingly durable “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from all-too-infrequent contributor Mark Coggins, the San Francisco-area photographer and author, whose previous “Story Behind the Story” piece addressed 2015’s No Hard Feelings, the sixth of his books starring Bay Area private eye August Riordan. He follows that up, below, by providing some background to his latest Riordan mystery, The Dead Beat Scroll, which is due for release this week from Down & Out Books.)

Late one night in January 1952, Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac appeared on the doorstep of Neal and Carolyn Cassady’s tiny A-frame house at 29 Russell Street, on Russian Hill in San Francisco. Neal was to serve as the model for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's most famous work, On the Road (1957). In fact, Kerouac’s description of his reception—“He [Neal] came to the door stark naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw”—made its way into the book.

Kerouac stayed with the Cassadys for the next six months, working on several novels, including On the Road, Doctor Sax, and Visions of Cody. He lived in the attic, writing on a desk made from a sheet of plywood. In 2003’s The Beat Generation in San Francisco, writer Bill Morgan catalogued the other attic furnishings: “There was a bed on the floor and a typewriter, paper, Dexedrine, a radio, bongo drums, and a tape recorder for the new spontaneous prose style he was developing.”

The original manuscript of On the Road was typed on what Kerouac referred to as “the scroll”: a continuous, 120-foot-long roll of sheets of tracing paper taped together. The text was single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks.

The first publisher to which Kerouac submitted On the Road, Ace Books, rejected it. Ace editor Carl Solomon explained why in a 1973 interview conducted by John Tytell:
CS: [He] sent us this long scroll. My uncle [the owner] said it looked like he took it from his trunk.

JT: The teletype roll. Did he get that from Lucien Carr at United Press?

CS: I don’t know where he got it, but we were used to these neat manuscripts, and I thought, “Gee, I can’t read this.”
Ultimately, the reading public in general, and book collectors in particular, came to have a very different opinion of On the Road. The book is now considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, and the scroll itself was bought in 2001 by a collector for $2.43 million—equal to $3.44 million in today’s dollars.

(Left) Author Mark Coggins

I first learned that Kerouac had stayed with the Cassadys on Russian Hill when I lived there myself in the mid-1990s. A friend pointed out the Russell Street house when we were walking in the neighborhood and related its unique place in San Francisco literary history. Later, after I’d finished work on my fourth novel, Runoff (2007), I remembered that house and began to toy with the idea of plotting my next book around another Kerouac scroll that is discovered when the Russell house is demolished. As you’ll see in this 2007 interview I did with author Julia Buckley for her blog, Mysterious Musings, I had even come up with a title: The Dead Beat Scroll.

But fate in the form of a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, intervened, and I was inspired to write instead about the bizarre story of Evita Perón’s “afterlife” in my 2009 novel, The Big Wake-Up. Next came No Hard Feelings, which sent my P.I. protagonist, August Riordan, away from San Francisco to a kind of exile in a double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Palm Springs, California.

While contemplating how to bring Riordan back to the City by the Bay, I hit on the idea of his being summoned by his former administrative assistant, Gretchen Sabatini, to help locate his old sidekick, cross-dressing techno-geek Chris Duckworth, who has gone missing after taking on a case involving a murderous polyamorous family. I then decided to resurrect the Kerouac manuscript as the MacGuffin that summons that family to town, and I threw in the Chinatown gang that Riordan mixed it up with in Runoff for good measure.

The Dead Beat Scroll is my seventh August Riordan novel and its debut occurs simultaneously with the 20th anniversary of the publication of my first novel, The Immortal Game, back in 1999.

On a personal note, its release also closely coincides with what would have been my 20th wedding anniversary. Tragically, my wife passed away several months before the book reached print. As I describe in this essay, “Who Was Linda Zhou?,” she was always my biggest supporter and fan, and I owe much of my success to her. It goes without saying that the dedication of The Dead Beat Scroll is to her—in both English and Chinese.

* * *

An excerpt from Coggins’ The Dead Beat Scroll is available on the Thrilling Detective Web Site. Background on all of his August Riordan tales can be found in Ben Boulden’s Gravetapping blog.

Saving Celluloid Sherlocks

I hadn’t realized that so many early film adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories were endangered. From In Reference to Murder:
According to the L.A. Times, two venerable institutions are throwing their energies behind a search for lost Sherlock Holmes films. The UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Baker Street Irregulars are on a mission to recover and restore missing Holmes films from the silent era and beyond. Finding the bygone works will involve the Library of Congress, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and historians, collectors, and national film archives in Britain, Germany, France and other countries. Previous such efforts have located a missing 1916 Holmes production starring American actor William Gillette, which turned up in 2014 in Paris.
Click here to read more about what’s at stake.

READ MORE:Lost ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Film Shot in Chicago from 1916 Found in France,” by Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune).

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Revue of Reviewers, 9-14-19

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

Applauding Antipodean Authors

Just over a month after the lists of finalists for New Zealand’s 2019 Ngaio Marsh Awards were made known, the winners of these 10th-annual commendations have been announced. They are:

Best Novel: This Mortal Boy, by Fiona Kidman (Penguin)

Also nominated: Money in the Morgue, by Ngaio Marsh and Stella Duffy (HarperCollins); The Quaker, by Liam McIlvanney (HarperCollins); Call Me Evie, by J.P. Pomare (Hachette); and The Vanishing Act, by Jen Shieff (Mary Egan)

Best First Novel: Call Me Evie, by J.P. Pomare (Hachette)

Also nominated: One for Another, by Andrea Jacka (Red River Pony); and Crystal Reign, by Kelly Lyndon (Remnant Press)

Best Non-fiction: The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Jane Furlong, by Kelly Dennett (Awa)

Also nominated: The Great New Zealand Robbery, by Scott Bainbridge (Allen & Unwin); Behind Bars, by Anna Leask (Penguin); and The Cause of Death, by Cynric Temple-Camp (HarperCollins)

The victorious books and their authors were identified earlier today as part of this year’s WORD Christchurch Festival. To learn more about the individual winners, click here.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Bullet Points: On Heavy Meds Edition

Please pardon my silence of the week, for as tardy schoolchildren worldwide are often heard to say, “I have a good excuse!”

Within an hour of my wife and I returning home last Saturday from a couple of days away, I somehow managed to fall down my back steps and hit the concrete sidewalk below. There were no consequent head or neck injuries, but I did break five ribs on my left side, as well as one small bone in the elbow of my left arm, and I seriously knocked the wind out of myself. Now, I’ve broken ribs on two previous occasions, so I wasn’t terribly worried at first. However, when my left arm started to freeze up, I decided to take my wife’s advice and head for the nearest emergency room. There, it was discovered that my accident offered one further complication: I had a hematoma on my spleen. This combination of ills sent me in an ambulance to an intensive care unit, where I spent Sunday and Monday. After being thoroughly poked and prodded, and reassured that the hematoma was dissipating, I was finally sent home with pain medication and recommendations that I take it easy for a while. That lasted a couple of days, before I felt the need to jump back into at least some modest work schedule.

So look at the “Bullet Points” news compilation below as part of my recovery. I hope to post at least one additional thing on this page before week’s end, but we’ll see how my energy level holds up. Because, of course, I don’t want to tire myself out so greatly that I can’t also spend some of this downtime reading.

• Thirty-one-year-old Swedish actor Adam Pålsson will star as Henning Mankell’s renowned detective protagonist, Kurt Wallander, in a six-episode English-language series for Netflix, due out next year. This Young Wallender, which is apparently hoping to generate some of the same magic that has made a hit of Shaun Evans’ Inspector Morse prequel, Endeavour, will explore “Wallander’s first case and the experiences that shaped him as a person,” explains The Killing Times. “When the series begins, Wallander is in his 20s and a recent graduate from university now working as a uniformed police officer.” Beyond Pålsson, the show will feature Richard Dillane as Police Commissioner Hemberg, Leanne Best as Frida Rask, and Ellise Chappell as Mona Wallander. Filming is said to be currently underway.

• The BBC is spreading a trailer—embedded above—to promote its upcoming TV series Dublin Murders, which is based on Tana French’s succession of haunting modern-day mysteries. The eight episodes of Season 1 have been adapted from French’s first two best-sellers, In the Woods and The Likeness, and will star Killian Scott (Ripper Street) and Sarah Greene (Ransom). Dublin Murders will show next month in the UK, but as The Killing Times points out, it won’t premiere in the States until November 10, courtesy of the premium channel Starz.

• By the way, Dublin Murders is just one of many interesting new crime dramas being readied for small-screen broadcast in Britain over the next several months. Also among that bunch will be Vienna Blood, a BBC Two production based on Frank Tallis’ 2007 historical novel of that same name. Here’s a plot précis:
Starring Matthew Beard, and Juergen Maurer, Vienna Blood is set in 1900s Vienna, a hotbed of philosophy, science and art, where a clash of cultures and ideas play out in the city’s grand cafés and opera houses. Max Liebermann (Beard) is a brilliant young English doctor, studying under the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. When Max comes into contact with Oskar Rheinhardt (Maurer), an Austrian Detective Inspector struggling with a strange case, he offers his assistance. Max’s extraordinary skills of perception and forensics and his deep understanding of human behaviour and deviance help Oskar solve some of Vienna’s most mysterious and deadly cases.
We can only hope that Vienna Blood will make its way to this side of the Atlantic very soon.

• As TV Guide notes, “Sacha Baron Cohen is best known as the comedian and impersonator who has brought to life quirky characters like Ali G, Borat and Bruno, and whose character work in Who Is America? convinced several real-life politicians to say some hilarious and disturbing things. But his next dramatic role—playing real-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen in Netflix’s [new] thriller The Spy—looks like the perfect fit, especially based on the first trailer for the limited series.” You’ll find that preview here; The Spy debuted on Netflix last Friday, though I haven’t yet found time enough to watch it.

• Organizers of this year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival (to be held in Stirling, Scotland, from September 20 to 22) have announced their list of finalists for the 2019 McIlvanney Prize:

Breakers, by Doug Johnstone (Orenda)
Conviction, by Denise Mina (Vintage)
The Way of All Flesh, by “Ambrose Parry,” aka Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman (Canongate)
A Treachery of Spies, by Manda Scott (Transworld)

You’ll find the longlist of nominees for that commendation here, together with the five books vying to take home the inaugural Debut Prize. The winners of these two awards will be made known during an opening reception for Bloody Scotland at Stirling’s Church of the Holy Rude on Friday, September 20. (Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

• Meanwhile, the Australian Crime Writers Association has chosen the recipients of its 2019 Ned Kelly Awards as follows:

— Best Fiction: The Lost Man, by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia)
— Best True Crime: Eggshell Skull, by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin)
— Best First Fiction: The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan
(HarperCollins Australia)

Click here to see the shortlisted works in each of those categories.

• Could a woman play British spy James Bond in future installments of the still-popular film series? According to two men who have portrayed Ian Fleming’s protagonist in the past, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, the answer is yes. “I think we’ve watched the guys do it for the last 40 years, get out of the way, guys, and put a woman up there,” Brosnan (GoldenEye, Die Another Day) is quoted in The Washington Post as saying. “I think it would be exhilarating, it would be exciting.” Brosnan conceded, though, “that a female James Bond was unlikely, given executive producer Barbara Broccoli’s insistence that ‘Bond is male.’”

• Speaking of Agent 007, The Spy Command reports that French actress Léa Seydoux, who appeared as psychiatrist Dr. Madeleine Swann in 2015’s Spectre, will be given a larger-than-earlier-anticipated part in next year’s 25th Bond flick, No Time to Die. A Google translation of a story published in Brazil says Swann “will also play a considerable role in the plot, as her character will again appear working in a psychiatric clinic.” No Time to Die is due to be released in the UK on April 3, 2020, with its U.S. debut expected on April 8.

• Finally, the James Bond Radio podcast is expected to return sometime in October. Its future had been left in doubt, following the recent departure of co-host Chris Wright. An Apple podcast archive of existing installments can be found here.

• I was saddened to hear this news, in the wake of my being discharged from the hospital: Onetime child model and actress Carol Lynley—known for her roles in such theatrical releases as Under the Yum Yum Tree, Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Poseidon Adventure, as well as in TV programs ranging from Mannix and It Takes a Thief to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Fall Guy—died on September 3 at age 77. I first remember spotting Lynley (who was born in New York City as Carole Ann Jones) in The Night Stalker, a 1972 ABC Movie of the Week in which she played the winsome blonde girlfriend of journalist-turned-monster hunter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin). I later enjoyed her performance in a two-part, 1974 episode of Bill Bixby’s The Magician, and subsequently saw her in Quincy, M.E., Kojak, and Richie Brockelman: Private Eye. Variety says that Lynley (left) perished at her home in Pacific Palisades, California, “after suffering a heart attack.”

• Sorry, but not even the addition of Agent Carter star Hayley Atwell to the expanding cast of Tom Cruise’s next Mission: Impossible picture (the seventh entry in that franchise) will convince me to plunk down real money for the “privilege” of watching Cruise struggle to appear tough again on screen.

• I’m far more likely to enjoy a very different Atwell role. This news item comes from B.V. Lawson’s In Reference to Murder:
The first trailer for Netflix’s new procedural drama, Criminal, is out, with David Tennant and Hayley Atwell starring as uncooperative suspects in the “innovative” police-procedural anthology series. Set entirely in the confines of a police interview suite, the show features 12 distinct stories that take place in four countries: the UK, France, Germany, and Spain.
• The latest edition of Clues: The Journal of Detection was recently published. As managing editor Elizabeth Foxwell explains, it’s a “theme issue on interwar mysteries guest edited by Victoria Stewart (University of Leicester, UK).” Topics include: “‘The Ghost of Dr. Freud Haunts Everything Today’: Criminal Minds in the Golden-Age Psychological Thriller”; “Capital Punishment and Women in the British Police Procedural: Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles and To Love and Be Wise”; and “Whose Trauma? Dorothy L. Sayers’s Use of Shell Shock and the Role of Memory in Interwar Detective Fiction.”

• Three terrific historical pieces from CrimeReads:The Spectacle of Degradation,” in which Dominique Kalifa looks back at 19th-century tours of big-city underworlds; Kerri Maniscalco’s essay, “Was H.H. Holmes the Real Jack the Ripper?”; and “100 Years Ago, the Country Debated Arming Women to Combat Sexual Assaults,” by Amy Stewart, whose fifth and newest entry in her acclaimed Kopp Sisters series, Kopp Sisters on the March, will reach bookstores this month.

• Lee Goldberg makes a good point in this Facebook post:
I don’t get why author Carolyn Weston (1921-2001) is never mentioned in articles about ground-breaking female writers in the crime-writing genre. She was the author of three hard-boiled police procedurals in the late 1960s set in Santa Monica, California, and featuring detectives Al Krug, a seasoned veteran, and his partner Casey Kellog, a younger, college-educated surfer. It was a strong pairing … so strong that it led to [TV producer] Quinn Martin optioning the books, and adapting the first one, Poor, Poor Ophelia, into the pilot for The Streets of San Francisco. The [1972-1977] series was a huge hit, and yet (to my knowledge), Weston and her publisher never capitalized on the success. To my knowledge, no Streets of San Francisco tie-in editions of her books were ever released—which is astonishing. Weston also never wrote another book and is forgotten, even though her books became the basis for one of the best-known TV cop shows in history.

Five years ago, Brash Books acquired the copyright to the trilogy, republished them, and hired Robin Burcell to write a new book,
The Last Good Place, in the literary series (though we moved the action to present-day San Francisco to better align it with the TV series. …)
• Pay attention, folks: The submission process for Canada’s 2020 Arthur Ellis Awards opened on September 1. Submission rules and entry forms can be found at the link.

• Last but not least, here are a few author interviews worth checking out: CrimeReads interrogates Rachel Moore on the subject of her new non-fiction book, Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession; Speaking of Mysteries host Nancie Clare chats with Sherri Leigh James about her two Cissy Huntington whodunits, Blood Red and Iced Blue; and MysteryPeople has a few questions for Reed Farrel Coleman, whose brand-new Jessie Stone novel is Robert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

“Mark Kilby and the Secret Syndicate”

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

Mark Kilby and the Secret Syndicate, by “Robert Frazier,” aka John Creasey (Pocket, 1960). This is the second of six novels Creasey wrote about Mark Kilby, an ex-British secret service agent turned “dashing private investigator.”

Cover illustration by Robert K. Abbett.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Presenting a Pair of Pinckleys

New York authors Megan Abbott and Sarah St. Vincent have been named as recipients of the 2019 Pinckley Prizes for Crime Fiction, given out by the Women’s National Book Association of New Orleans.

Abbott, a onetime Rap Sheet contributor whose acclaimed novels include Give Me Your Hand (2018), Dare Me (2012), and Bury Me Deep (2009), is the winner of this year’s Pinckley Prize for Distinguished Body of Work. Meanwhile, St. Vincent has won the Pinckley Prize for Debut Novel for Ways to Hide in Winter (Melville House).

The annual Pinckley Prizes are named in memory of Diana Pinckley, a longtime crime-fiction columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. Abbott and St. Vincent will receive their prizes on October 10 at the Louisiana Humanities Center in New Orleans.

(Hat tip to The Gumshoe Site.)

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Prized Company

With the Labor Day holiday (which turned out to be a “working holiday” for yours truly) now over, it’s time to get back to business. The first task is to spread news, previously reported in Jiro Kimura’s The Gumshoe Site, about two crime-fiction awards.

Back in late July, the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) announced its nominees for the 2019 Dagger Awards, in nine familiar categories. Now it has released a shortlist of contenders for its inaugural CWA Dagger for Best Crime and Mystery Publisher of the Year. Those companies are as follows:

Faber and Faber
Harper Fiction (HarperCollins)
HQ (HarperCollins)
No Exit Press (Oldcastle Books)
Orenda Books
Pushkin Vertigo (Pushkin)
Raven (Bloomsbury)

The winners of all the 2019 Dagger Awards are supposed to be declared during a special ceremony, in London, on October 24.

Meanwhile, Sisters in Crime Australia has let it be known which books and authors have received its 2019 Davitt Awards, named for Ellen Davitt (1812-1879), Australia’s first crime novelist. There are six categories of recipients, with 25 titles in all. I shan’t repeat them all here; instead, I’ll follow Kimura’s lead and report just the winners:

Best Adult Crime Novel:
The Ruin, by Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Australia)
Best Young Adult Crime Novel:
Small Spaces, by Sarah Epstein (Walker Books)
Best Children’s Crime Novel:
Wakestone Hall, by Judith Rossell (ABC Books)
Best Non-fiction Crime Book:
The Arsonist, by Chloe Hooper (Penguin Random House)
Best Debut Crime Book:
Eggshell Skull, by Bri Lee (Allen & Unwin)
Readers’ Choice:
The Lost Man, by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia)

You can look over all of this year’s Davitt nominees here.

Friday, August 30, 2019

The Book You Have to Read: “Meet Me at
the Morgue,” by Ross Macdonald

(Editor’s note: This 160th entry in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books comes from Craig Pittman. A native of Pensacola, Florida, Pittman is an award-winning journalist who covers environmental issues for the Tampa Bay Times. His non-fiction books include Manatee Insanity: Inside the War Over Florida’s Most Famous Endangered Species [2010], The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid [2012], and Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country [2016]. In his last piece for The Rap Sheet, Pittman looked back at Elmore Leonard’s acclaimed 1983 novel, LaBrava.)

Between 1949 and 1976, Canadian native Kenneth Millar, under the pen names “John Ross Macdonald” and “Ross Macdonald,” published 20 mystery novels. (He had previously sent to print four standalones under his real name.) Eighteen of those featured private eye Lew Archer, a more empathetic version of the cynical Southern California P.I. originated by Raymond Chandler. Those books brought Millar great acclaim. He was hailed by critics as the true heir of the hard-boiled tradition first made prominent by Dashiell Hammett and then continued by Chandler. A pair of the Archer novels were made into movies starring a gum-chewing Paul Newman as the gumshoe.

But what about those other two novels? They’re the outliers, the ones that didn’t feature Lew Archer or even mention him in passing. The first one of the two is the one I want to tell you about.

It’s called Meet Me at the Morgue and for my money, it’s Millar’s best novel, with a relentless pace and twisty plot that pulls you in and won’t let go.

The main character and narrator is Howard Cross. He’s not a detective. He’s a probation officer. He’s not based in Los Angeles, like Archer. He lives and works in a small Southern California town called Pacific Point.

One of Cross’ probationers is Fred Miner, a World War II veteran who was convicted of a hit-and-run killing that occurred while he was drunk. Miner, despite his past, now walks the straight-and-narrow. He works as a chauffeur for the richest family in town. But when that family’s 4-year-old child disappears at the same time Miner does, the ex-con is suspected of kidnapping him. Cross, however, is skeptical that Miner would do such a thing.

The boy’s young and glamorous mother won’t hear of going to the police, for fear that the news of this abduction might kill her rich and elderly husband, so Cross begins his own investigation. At first he doubts his own fitness to pursue such a case, as well as his methods. But before long he discovers connections to past misdeeds, and the bodies begin to pile up. Cross becomes a driven man, unable to sit still or catch his breath until he’s figured out the whole scheme.

The themes in this book are similar to those Millar explored with Archer: family members who can’t understand each other, secrets from the past that can’t remain buried, the way thwarted dreams can curdle the heart.

Cross, too, has some similarities to Archer. His voice in recounting this story echoes the private eye’s inflections and nuances. But he’s different, too. He’s not the loner that Archer is. He’s not a freelancer, either. He’s a county employee, with a boss and regular hours. He’s part of a system designed to support society, not a guy looking to shake it up. More importantly, he’s a part of the community, not an outsider stepping in to pry open all the locked doors.

When Millar wrote this book in 1952, he had already produced four successful Archer novels: The Moving Target (1949), The Drowning Pool (1959), The Way Some People Die (1951), and The Ivory Grin (1952). But he was ready for a break from Lew Archer, and ready too for readers to know his real name. According to biographer Tom Nolan, this new book was supposed to be published as a Kenneth Millar novel, not a John Ross Macdonald one. He hoped it would be the first in a string of Cross novels bearing his name, alternating with the Lew Archer books. He even saw possibilities of Cross becoming the centerpiece character of a new TV series, according to Nolan.

Millar spent time at a probation office to research the novel, and also talked to a renowned forensic chemist regarding a crucial clue he hoped to use. But he ended up writing the book under difficult circumstances, recalls Nolan. He suffered from a painful attack of gout that landed him in a rented wheelchair. For months on end, he required constant care from his wife, Margaret Millar, herself a successful mystery novelist.

Somehow, despite the swelling in his hands and feet, he managed to crank out this book and send it off to his publisher, Alfred Knopf.

“I like it immensely,” Knopf wrote him. “I think it is one of your best books.”

Not everyone agreed. Millar’s paperback publisher was Pocket Books, and Pocket was not particularly happy with this new tale: “Reading the manuscript left me once again puzzled about the author and his works. … [A]ll the books lack the kind of punch which should go with the sort of story he writes. Maybe the author is just too nice a person, but his bad characters somehow or other aren’t believably bad.” The note went on to suggest that Millar try to be more like Chandler, and “sharpen both the characters and the action.”

Millar shot back a hot rejoinder, according to Nolan. The characters in this book, he wrote, “are more human than in anything I’ve done, closer to life.” He felt “more than pleased” with the plot he had concocted. As for Chandler, “I am interested in doing things in the mystery which Chandler didn’t do, and probably couldn’t. … My interest is the exploration of lives. If my stories lack a powerful contrast between good and evil, as Pocket Books points out, it isn’t mere inadvertence.” This book, he explained, “though it is an offspring or variant of the hardboiled form, is a stage in my emergence from that form and a conscious step towards the popular novel I envisage.”

Knopf loved Millar’s feisty response, replying: “I am all for the writer who goes his own way.” However, he insisted the new novel needed a new title. The one Millar had proposed was Message from Hell, which Knopf said just would not do. Nolan says Millar offered Meet Me at the Morgue as a half-hearted compromise, and Knopf ran with it. There would be one more change: Because Knopf had put in so much effort promoting Millar’s previous books under the pseudonym of “John Ross Macdonald,” he said this book should carry that name as well. Millar agreed, but for the author’s photo he submitted an X-ray.

When Meet Me at the Morgue finally came out in 1953, it was greeted with good reviews, Nolan reports. One critic said it was up to the author’s usual high standards “and will give a couple of hours of pure enjoyment to any detective-story fancier.” It was picked up for reprint not just by Pocket Books, but also by the Mystery Guild book club. Cosmopolitan magazine even paid $5,000 to run a condensed version.

But it didn’t sell well in hardcover (Knopf explained in a letter that hardcover fiction in general was selling poorly right then). Meanwhile, the Cosmo reprint brought a surprise eruption from a Florida mystery author, John D. MacDonald, who objected to Millar continuing to use a version of his name as his pseudonym (ultimately Millar would drop the “John” and just go with “Ross Macdonald”).

The next book Millar wrote, published a year after Meet Me at the Morgue, was another Archer adventure, Find a Victim. Then came The Barbarous Coast (1956), The Doomsters (1958), and The Galton Case (1959)—all featuring Lew Archer. Howard Cross disappeared like a fist when you open your hand. He was never heard from again.

Millar wrote one more mystery centered around an investigator who wasn’t named Archer. It was The Ferguson Affair, released in 1960, and the main character is a happily married lawyer. He’s representing a young woman he thinks may be innocent of the crime she’s been accused of, and at the center of the story is a rich older man and his much younger wife. Sound familiar?

Nolan doesn’t speculate on why Millar never wrote another Cross book. Something soured Millar on the character he had once wanted to see on weekly television. Two decades after Meet Me at the Morgue was published, in a letter to his friend and admirer Eudora Welty, Millar wrote: “Nearly twenty years ago, in 1952, I was so badly crippled by gout that I was housebound in a wheelchair for months; wrote a whole book, a not very good book … with a not very good title, when all I could move was my fingers.”

Reading the book today, you’d never know that its author could barely move while he was writing it. Meet Me at the Morgue itself moves plenty. It rockets along like it was shot from a pistol—one that’s aimed straight at your heart.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Revue of Reviewers, 8-28-19

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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

On the Basis of Six

Can you condense a crime-fiction plot down to only half a dozen words? That’s the challenge presented in the third annual Six-Word Mystery Contest, sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America. An RMMWA press release explains that
The contest is now open, with instructions posted at Entries must be received by midnight, October 31, 2019. Six-word novels can be entered in one or all five of the following categories: Hard-boiled or Noir; Cozy Mystery; Thriller Mystery; Police Procedural Mystery; and/or a mystery with Romance or Lust. The Six-Word Mystery Contest is open to all adults 18 and over. No residency requirements. …

Cost to enter the contest is $6 for one entry (just $1 per word); or $10 to enter six-word mysteries in all five categories. The grand prize winner will receive $100 in cash. Winners in all other categories will receive valuable gift cards to the Tattered Cover Book Store and will have their stories featured on the RMMWA website and published in both Deadlines, RMMWA’s newsletter, and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. …

Finalists will be invited to the chapter’s annual Mystery & Mistletoe Holiday Party, December 12, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. Winners will be voted on by those attending the party and announced that evening.
Click here to see all of last year’s Six-Word Mystery Contest winners, including the Overall Contest Winner, Matthew Porter, whose submission read: “She took his name. For starters.”

Taking the Silver in Nashville

B.V. Lawson reminds us in her blog, In Reference to Murder, that this last weekend brought the Killer Nashville mystery-fiction conference to Tennessee’s capital city. As an element of those festivities, presentations were made of the the 2019 Silver Falchion Awards. There were a dozen categories of winners, but the following two might be of the greatest interest to Rap Sheet readers:

Best Mystery:
A Knife in the Fog, by Bradley Harper (Seventh Street)

Also nominated: Unholy Secrets, by Delphine Boswell (CreateSpace); The Burial Place, by Larry Enmon (Crooked Lane); The Shadows We Hide, by Allan Eskens (Mulholland); Star Struck, by Mike Faricy (Credit River e-book); Killing in C Sharp, by Alexia Gordon (Henery Press); River of Secrets, by Roger Johns (Minotaur); A Dying Note, by Ann Parker (Poisoned Pen Press); Deadly Solution, by Keenan Powell (Level Best); and Dying for a Deal, by Cindy Sample (CreateSpace)

Best Thriller:
Tie — Illegal Holdings, by Michael Niemann (Coffeetown Press), and Scourge, by Charley Pearson (Ingram Spark)

Also nominated: Yesterday’s News, by R.G. Belsky (Oceanview); The War Beneath, by Timothy S. Johnston (ChiZine); Fractured, by Thomas Kelso (Jolly Robin Press); The Consultant, by Tj O’Connor (Oceanview); City of Grudges, by Rick Outzen (SelectBooks); A Knife’s Edge, by Eliot Parker (Headline); Naked Truth, by Rick Pullen (Koehler); and The Dark and the Dead, by Dana J. Summers (CreateSpace)

Click here to find the complete list of winners. And the catalogue of all this year’s finalists is available here.

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Story Behind the Story: “The Death Dealer,” by Adam Rocke and Mark Rogers

(Editor’s note: This is the 85th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. The essay below comes from Adam Rocke Slutsky and Mark Rogers, co-authors of the new thriller novel The Death Dealer [World Castle]. Adam grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains—the famous “Borscht Belt”—where his family owned a hotel. He has since worked as a journalist, specializing in “high octane participatory articles for hip men’s lifestyle publications.” Meanwhile, Mark is a veteran travel journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Village Voice, and other publications. He’s also the author of the novel Koreatown Blues [2017]).

In the late-1990s, I was following in the footsteps of my literary idol, Hunter S. Thompson, engaging in participatory journalism—primarily for hip men’s lifestyle publications (Razor, Maxim, Stuff, etc.).

One day I received a call from Keith Blanchard, the editor-in-chief of Maxim, asking me if I knew any mercenaries. Soldiers of fortune. War-fighters who played for pay. Turns out I did. A man by the name of Jonathan Keith Idema was my “Dark Arts Yoda,” schooling me in self-defense, guns and weaponry, CQB (close quarters combat) tactics … Everything I’d ever need to know to survive if society collapsed.

If Idema’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he would go on to become infamous. He was convicted of running his own private prison in Afghanistan and served three years of a 10-year term before being pardoned by Afghanistan’s then-president, Hamid Karzai. Idema also led an Afghanistan group called Task Force Saber 7, whose mission it was to hunt for Osama bin Laden. Many of Idema’s claims that he was a clandestine operative working for the U.S. government have been challenged. Some say Idema was an operative, others portray him as a con man.

Editor Blanchard wanted a no-holds-barred, up-close-and-personal “mercenary story” worthy of being a cover feature. I had one that definitely fit the bill.

For more than a year, Idema had been taking wealthy big-game hunters on real-life “Most Dangerous Game” safaris, hunting prey that could shoot back. While Idema claimed to have done some of this unlawful guide work in Eastern Europe (where there were multiple conflicts raging), the vast majority of his illicit safaris took place in Africa, hunting poachers.

Idema’s “clients” had checked off every item on their bucket lists and were now looking to scratch some ungodly primal itch—without legal consequences. As far as moral consequences go, that was between them and their consciences.

The story I produced—titled “The Death Dealer”—was a cover feature in Maxim magazine’s September 1998 issue. Despite writing the piece under a pseudonym, and also changing Idema’s name in the story, along with some pertinent details, almost a month before the magazine hit the newsstands I was questioned by the FBI about what I had written.

(Left) The September 1998
issue of Maxim magazine.

Fast-forward now to January 21, 2012. Jonathan Keith Idema died in Bacalar, Mexico. His cause of death was listed as HIV/AIDS. Those who followed his actions closely would say his demise was a product of his latter-years lifestyle, but there others who weren’t convinced. He had made a lot of enemies during his 55 years on Earth (including the CIA, NSA, and more than a few so-called No-Name agencies), so it stands to reason that anyone could have done the deed and masked it to look like natural causes.

I knew I had a story here—maybe a screenplay, maybe a novel. I brought in Mark Rogers to partner with me in writing a screenplay based on Idema’s human safaris.

After Adam opened the door to my working with him on The Death Dealer, I sat down with the original Maxim article and the notes Adam had drafted for a screenplay. It took me only moments to get inspired. One of my favorite stories growing up was “The Most Dangerous Game,” by Richard Connell, and one of my favorite movies was Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey (1965). The Death Dealer would have elements of both of those works, but it also had its own unique slant. The fact that it was based on a real person made the project even more appealing.

We decided not to use Idema’s name; our death dealer is named Haden. Idema was a scurrilous and unsympathetic character. Haden, the protagonist in our book, has his rough edges but he’s developed a code of honor as a mercenary that he brings to all of his relationships. His predilection is to organize hunts against the kind of people the world would hardly miss: African poachers, Somali pirates, Mexican drug dealers. But of course, very little is truly black and white, good or evil, and Haden’s moral education is an ongoing process.

(Right) Mark Rogers

Collaboration can be tricky—it demands honesty and an attitude of good will. Both writers have to be riding the horse in the same direction. Luckily, our writing styles melded really well. Both Adam and I have our own individual strengths as writers. In the case of The Death Dealer, our combined talents created a work that is stronger than if we had tackled it singly. I actually met Adam on this project, so we developed our friendship at the same time as we pounded out the story.

Trying to open the doors to Hollywood and mainstream publishing can be a battering process. It helps that both Adam and I are optimists. I think you have to be in this business. The odds are against success, and adding a pessimistic nature to the struggle only handicaps the writer. That said, there’s a big difference between being an optimist and being a Pollyanna who thinks every moment is a Christmas gift waiting to be unwrapped. If all goes well, an attitude of tough optimism can be developed.

One of Idema’s positive characteristics was his love for animals, especially dogs. He had a massive Tibetan Shepherd named Sarge that was easily the most well-trained pooch on the planet. Idema took his dog training to the next level, rigging up a specialized oxygen rig so Sarge could accompany him on skydiving adventures, jumping out of C-130s leaving from Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, New York. Idema’s efforts in this arena paved the way for today’s SEAL and Spec Ops teams, which employ K9 units on their missions. Whenever they do HAHO jumps (high altitude, high opening) or HALO jumps (high altitude, low opening) requiring supplemental oxygen, the canine rigs are derivatives of the ones Idema created.

It was Idema’s love of dogs, and his interaction with Sarge, that lead Mark and I to give Haden a dog in our story, and the scenes in which he acquired the dog and gained its trust are a direct product of Idema’s early years.

(Left) Adam Rocke Slutsky

We both felt that this “softer side” of our anti-hero mercenary lead character would play well with a wide audience. And so, to test the waters, we entered the screenplay (at that time titled Hunter’s Moon) in the 2014 Script Pipeline screenwriting competition. To our surprise, out of more than 5,000 entries, our work was a top-10 finalist. We received some option offers but decided that writing a novel was our best bet.

Diving into work on the novel after writing the screenplay gave us the opportunity to provide an inner narrative for each of the characters. It also allowed us to stretch out in depicting the African setting, as well as adding scenes that worked well in a novel, but would have slowed a screenplay down. In writing the novel, we actually discovered some alternative ways of telling the story, and a few of these changes found their way into subsequent drafts of the screenplay.

We took our completed novel—retitled The Death Dealer, in synergy with the Maxim article that spawned it—and found a home for it fairly quickly, at World Castle Publishing. We’ve already started receiving inquiries from Hollywood about the novel’s television and film rights.

We’re also in discussions with our publisher about creating a series featuring Haden, the death dealer from the first novel. Of course, this depends upon what kind of reaction we get in the marketplace. We consider Haden a kind of story machine, with each novel having a different client (or clients) and taking place in a different part of the world: The Philippines, El Salvador, Haiti, etc.

Bringing this story to market was an exceptionally long road and, speaking for both Mark and I, there’s a definite feeling of accomplishment—a victory of sorts—that we were able to weather the storm (or in this case, storms) that many novelists face when trying to get their work published. The upside here was that the lengthy amount of time that passed between the story’s inception and the final, ready-for-publication manuscript allowed us to refine every element from start to finish, resulting in a book that we hope readers will truly enjoy.

I’ll add that while writing is, for the most part a solitary process, The Death Dealer is proof that two sets of eyes, two different life experiences, and two different collections of sensibilities are better than one.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A Sunday Smattering

• In Reference to Murder reports that “The Southern California Independent Booksellers Association has announced finalists for its 2019 book awards, winners of which will be celebrated at SCIBA’s annual trade show, to be held September 27-28 in San Gabriel …” Here are the finalists for the T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award:

The Feral Detective, by Jonathan Lethem
The Good Detective, by John McMahon
The Border, by Don Winslow

• Hugh Laurie, formerly of House and The Night Manager, will star next year as a British Conservative minister in what The Killing Times terms “a high-profile political thriller called Roadkill …” The Web site goes on to explain: “Roadkill is a four-part fictional thriller about a self-made, forceful and charismatic politician called Peter Laurence [Laurie]. Peter’s public and private life seems to be falling apart—or rather is being picked apart by his enemies. As the personal revelations spiral, he is shamelessly untroubled by guilt or remorse, expertly walking a high wire between glory and catastrophe as he seeks to further his own agenda whilst others plot to bring him down. However, events show just how hard it is, for both an individual and a country, to leave the past behind. With enemies so close to home, can Peter Laurence ever out-run his own secrets to win the ultimate prize?”

Happy 89th birthday, Sean Connery!

• Readers of The Columbophile have selected their 10 favorite killers from Peter Falk’s Columbo series. I’m pleased to see Gene Barry, who guest-starred in the first Columbo pilot (Prescription: Murder) featured on the list, and I am not at all surprised that Jack Cassidy makes a double appearance among the honorees.

• You knew it would happen: Elvis Presley turns spy.

• And for Tidal, author Alex Segura (Miami Midnight) muses on the noir stylings of “beloved pop princess” Taylor Swift.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Robust Rise of the “Regionals”

Today marks my long-overdue return to CrimeReads, after a few months of being distracted by other editorial projects and helping to open a new Seattle bookshop. My subject under consideration this time is the forgotten rise of regional American detective fiction during the 1970s and ’80s. As I recall in the piece:
That’s when a restless new generation of detective-fictionists decided the field—grown stale after a mid-century deluge of male-oriented works formulated around cynical peepers, amorous female clients, and epidemic gunplay—needed a serious shaking-up in order to maintain relevance and readership. One result of that effort was a broader, updated perspective on what sorts of offenses could and should be addressed in these books: not just larceny, abductions, and choreographed slayings anymore, but also environmental injustices, endemic racism, human trafficking, right-wing extremism, domestic abuse, and child-custody disputes. Another way the genre diversified was by expanding its storytelling stage beyond familiar urban hubs, to rediscover the value of literary regionalism.
Included among the people responsible for that era’s crime-fiction expansion were authors ranging from Robert B. Parker and Tony Hillerman to K.C. Constantine, James Crumley, Karen Kijewski, Jonathan Valin, Richard Hoyt, Linda Barnes, and William J. Reynolds.

Again, click here to find that whole CrimeReads piece.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The Book You Have to Read:
“La Donna Detroit,” by Jon A. Jackson

(Editor’s note: This is the 159th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
Retiring from the mafia is not easy—even if one survives to old age. A Detroit mob boss with the stomach-churning name of Humphrey DiEbola wants to do just that in La Donna Detroit (2000), the eighth entry in Jon A. Jackson’s Detective Sergeant “Fang” Mulheisen series. Fang himself doesn’t appear often until nearly the end of this book, but readers won’t miss him all that much—plot-wise there’s no need for his presence. La Donna Detroit is a character study and a post-mob handbook for aging torpedoes, which on the surface reads as a basic mafia back-stabbing revenge drama. Fortunately, the tale never veers towards that, nor towards a flat-footed procedural, even when Mulheisen shows up. The action here focuses on DiEbola’s plan, which will require plenty of patient scheming as he gets all his ducks in a row as nicely if they were floating past in a shooting gallery. The first and most crucial step is to find and groom someone to take over the business once he fakes his death; and DiEbola believes he has his patsy.

Helen Sedlacek is a successful, intelligent young woman with “gallons of black hair” and the scruples of a robber baron. She is without a doubt her father’s daughter, her old man being the Serbian crime boss whose murder is the MacGuffin in this book. Helen has been able to make a decent living in a man’s world without getting involved in the family business, but that soon changes. This tough little cookie is drawn into the perilous action after her father is murdered, prompting her and lover Joe Service, a freelance hit man, to deliver some street justice to the capo who ordered thar killing. Revenge is served even colder when the pair makes off with millions of dollars in mob cash—but as usual, a recovery team of thugs is hot on their trail. With unexpected results.

Seven installments of the Mulheisen series were published prior to this one, so La Donna Detroit backtracks just enough for late-arriving readers (such as me) to be clued in; for instance, the hit on Helen’s dad was made and the money taken in a previous book, allowing this one to be read as a standalone. There are, however, enough plot twists and complications here to compel readers to stay on the ball. In flashbacks, we see Service hospitalized after he and Helen take it on the lam. Helen grabs the loot while Joe is laid up, and DiEbola—who’s already next in line to be king—fills the interregnum and locates Helen. He’s not out for revenge; he just wants to talk business. Like an angel of redemption, DiEbola brings Helen back into the fold and cuts a deal.

DiEbola has known Helen all of her life. Without her, he wouldn’t have risen to capo di capo, so at the very least he owes her something for that. He’s been an uncle to her (“Unca Umby”), and Helen trusts DiEbola not to harm her. He tells Helen that he tried to dissuade the killers from making the hit on her father, and that he has big plans for her. DiEbola wants to take Helen to the head of the class, starting with her running his knock-off cigar company—maker of the premium La Donna Detroit brand—as well as other of his legitimate businesses. However, as Sedlacek is introduced to louche Detroit society—the slobs and the players—and their doings, a group of rogue government law-enforcement agents are leaning on the hospitalized Service for intel on the international drug trade. Their selling point is simple: Service is a fugitive from the law and a man wanted by the mob, with law enforcement guarding his recovery room 24/7. With no one to turn to save for this renegade group, Service is finally convinced to escape from the hospital, and is eventually talked into blowing up a jet with a drug kingpin on board—as well infiltrating the mob and killing DiEbola. However, luck, opportunity, and old-school allegiance to the criminal organization prevail, and after fleeing the rogue agents, Service makes his way back to DiEbola and Helen, who by this point is DiEbola’s right-hand woman. All the while, DiEbola has been putting together the components of his escape, and in organized crime, there’s no such thing as a clean getaway.

(Left) Author Jon A. Jackson

DiEbola hosts a poker game that ends in a massacre, during which he makes his getaway. Among the dead is one of DiEbola’s henchmen, whose corpse is DiEbola’s stand in. Service returns to the fold to aid DiEbola’s flight aboard a cabin cruiser, across Lake Michigan to Canada. This is Mulhiesen’s cue to enter the stage. He assembles the clues to the massacre at the poker table and DiEbola’s possible involvement, and he’s also able to solve a murder that happened decades in the past, one that involves an adolescent Humphrey DiEbola.

The old days of mafia honor are disappearing, and the machinations of La Donna Detroit show the new ways taking hold. Classic thugs and enforcers are out, along with blackjacks and cement overcoats; gangsters with MBAs are rushing to fill the void. Author Jackson delivers the story of this nefarious evolution with humor and insight and a curiosity that should lead newcomers to search out other entries in his series, which began with 1977’s The Diehard.

Friday Finds

• Series 7 of Endeavour has begun filming, according to The Killing Times, and an eighth season of that popular historical crime series has already been commissioned by British television network ITV. Endeavour shows in the States under PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! umbrella. The Killing Times has this to say about stories to come:
The seventh series will consist of three, brand-new interconnecting feature-length films. Each film will once again be written by Russell Lewis who has penned all 27 Endeavour screenplays to date. …

The new trilogy of films mark Endeavour [Morse, played by Shaun Evans] and his colleagues entering a new decade and era of change. Opening on New Year’s Eve 1970, normal order has been resumed, and the team reunited at Castle Gate CID, with Chief Superintendent Bright [Anton Lesser] back in charge. However, the events of the past year have left their mark, and the new series will see old friendships challenged and new relationships blossom.

In the dawn of women’s liberation, social progression and scientific growth, the 1970s begin for Oxford’s finest with the discovery of a body at the canal towpath on New Year’s Day. With the only clue in the investigation a witness who heard whistling on the night of the crime, the team have their work cut out to uncover their culprit.

With a strong, overarching plot connecting the three films, the seventh series will test Endeavour’s moral compass to breaking point, both personally and professionally.
• Here’s one non-fiction book I’m looking forward to reading this fall: Barry Forshaw’s Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide (Oldcastle). As press materials explain, that 448-page work strives to be quite comprehensive in its treatment of the genre: “Every major writer is included, along with many other more esoteric choices. Focusing on a key book (or books) by each writer, and with essays on key crime genres, Crime Fiction: A Reader's Guide is designed to be both a crime fan’s shopping list and a pithy, opinionated but unstuffy reference tool and history. Most judgements are generous (though not uncritical), and there is a host of entertaining, informed entries on related films and TV.” British critic Forshaw’s last, shorter book, Historical Noir, was a splendid resource, and I expect Crime Fiction: A Reader’s Guide to be equally enlightening. Amazon shows that it’s due out in Britain on November 21, and in the States next summer.

• It appears The Seattle Times is doubling up on its crime-fiction coverage. Adam Woog has been writing about this genre for many years, but now arts critic Moira Macdonald has posted the first installment of her new monthly column, “The Plot Thickens.” My initial impression is that she’s interested primarily in best-seller material, but let’s watch to see how her column develops over time.

• Criminal Element’s new entry in its series looking back at 65 years worth of books that have won the Edgar Award for Best Novel focuses on L.R. Wright’s The Suspect (1985). Writes Doreen Sheridan:
The first Canadian winner ... features, perhaps stereotypically, ... a Mountie and a librarian politely declining to discuss a murder where they both know whodunnit. The Mountie is Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg, a divorced forty-something who misses his daughters back in Calgary but has no intention of leaving his posting on Canada’s Sunshine Coast, a beautiful if difficult-to-access stretch of shoreline just north of Vancouver. The librarian is Cassandra Mitchell, also in her forties, who moved to the town of Sechelt to be close to her aging mother. Cassandra and Karl connect through a lonely hearts ad she posted but find their burgeoning romance tested by their individual relationships with George Wilcox, the titular suspect who kills a man on the very first page of this novel.”
• And William Lampkin is posting photos from PulpFest 2019 in his blog, Yellowed Perils. PulpFest is currently underway in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It strikes me as an annual event I really should attend sometime, though given the number of collectible items on sale, my bank account might be better off if I stay home.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Revue of Reviewers, 8-12-19

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