Monday, May 21, 2007

The Rough Guide to Dinner

For me, there’s nothing better than sitting down to a good meal with fellow crime- and thriller-fiction enthusiasts, and talking about books. So I was delighted last Thursday to attend a gathering organized by the wonderful marketing team from HarperCollins UK. That team, led by Fiona McIntosh and supported by Kelly Pike and Louisa Dear, had invited a number of UK book reviewers to an informal dinner at The Albannach, a renowned Scottish restaurant located just off Trafalgar Square in London.

Attending were Mike Stotter, Mike Ripley, Peter Guttridge, Laura Wilson, and Maxim Jakubowski, as well as Barry Forshaw, with whom I’ve been working hard on the forthcoming Harcourt Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction (a volume that will also include contributions from numerous other writers and editors). I have known Forshaw for many years now, not only as an editor (he’s also in charge of Crime Time magazine) and influential critic of this genre, but also as an author and awards judge.

It was a wonderful idea to get all of these folks together, in order to break bread and share wine with the HarperCollins folks. The strange thing, however, was that there were no proof copies of soon-to-be-published novels handed around the table, no catalogues dispensed or finished HarperCollins titles thrust into our hands. In fact, there were only two books mentioned in any kind of detail over the course of the dinner--with just one of those being a HarperCollins release! The purpose of this get-together, it seems, was to find out more about our respective tastes, in order that HarperCollins publicists could, in the future, send us only those works that appeal to our individual preferences. This was a great idea, I thought, as most reviewers could build boats from the stacks of books submitted to them by publishers.

The single HarperCollins release they did push was Val McDermid’s upcoming novel, Beneath the Bleeding, which marks the return of her troubled psychological profiler, Tony Hill (last seen in 2004’s The Torment of Others). Here’s a synopsis:
It seems that the fictional city of Bradfield is in mourning. Bradfield Victoria’s football star midfielder has been murdered, bizarrely poisoned in an apparently motiveless killing. Then a bomb blast rips through the football stadium. Dozens lie dead, many more injured. Is it a terrorist attack or a vendetta against the Vics? Or something even more sinister? As he lies in a hospital bed, psychologist and profiler Dr. Tony Hill struggles to make sense of the fragments of information he manages to gather. But his customary ally, DCI Carol Jordan, is being pushed to the margins of the investigation by intelligence services determined to prove themselves indispensable. It wouldn’t be so bad if Tony and Carol could agree about who they’re looking for. But even their relationship has its dislocations and dark places. Beneath the Bleeding sets Tony and Carol at odds as they have never been before, forcing them to ask questions of themselves they would never have imagined possible.
Since the last published novel from McDermid was The Grave Tattoo, a standalone historical thriller, fans of Hill and Jordan have waited impatiently over the last three years for their return (perhaps by watching repeats of the popular ITV series Wire in the Blood, which featured those same characters). To prepare them for Beneath the Bleeding, which isn’t expected in UK bookstores till August, McDermid has recorded a short bit about the novel here.

I’ve known Val McDermid for a long time now, and I am constantly amazed at how she produces such amazing, award-winning work, and also finds time to help other writers get a leg up in this business. Click here for forensic evidence of her workload.

The other book we discussed at some length over the meal is actually a Penguin UK publication: The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, written by Barry Forshaw (with a foreword by Scottish novelist Ian Rankin) and due out on both sides of the Atlantic in mid-July. Ever the mischievous one, Mike Ripley pronounced himself be perplexed by the selection of authors and titles covered in this paperback tome. With a glint in his eye, he said to Forshaw, “Well, Barry, you got the first part of the title right ...”

Books such as The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction ought not be taken too seriously, as they inevitably cause readers to second-guess the content choices made by their authors and editors. Undoubtedly, Forshaw’s 320-page volume will stir up controversy. But I found it to be a fine and illuminating work. Its sections devoted to the so-called Golden Age of Detection were especially well researched, with a good deal of space given to Rogue Male (1939), by Geoffery Household, a favorite of mine. I also liked how this Rough Guide is split into departments devoted to private-eye novels, police procedurals, hard-boiled and pulp works, and more. And I was tickled to see that Forshaw had selected Dennis Lehane’s Prayers for Rain (1999)--my favorite Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro novel--as worthy of literary dissection.

The only downside to having such a concise, well-written work about crime fiction is that it has nagged me to go pull out some of the older books buried deep within my to-be-read pile. On the other hand, it has nudged me to explore a few writers I have previously ignored, due to my limited time. I shall be better for these efforts, surely.

Forshaw seemed pleased by our critical reception of his forthcoming guide. And though the urgency of deadlines for the Harcourt Encyclopaedia of British Crime Fiction weighed heavy on a number of us that evening, Fiona McIntosh did her best to keep the wine flowing and help us forget about such pressures.

At least until the next morning, that is, when--with a pounding head--I contemplated writing a companion volume to Forshaw’s book, called The Rough Guide to Managing a Red Wine Hangover. Do you think HarperCollins could be coaxed into publishing it, too?

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