14 March 2018

The Girl in the Lagoon: Martin Cruz Smith


David Edgerley Gates

Martin Cruz Smith made his bones with Gorky ParkI remember its jaw-dropping singularity, almost a science fiction conceit, where the oddness of the whole is captured by tilting everyday detail ninety degrees from square. It got its effects from accumulation. There was also a slight alteration of rhythm, a kind of stutter or hesitation to the language, the words careful and exact, but somehow dealt face-down, like a card trick. You were surprised when they were turned over, showing a jack when you expected an ace. It felt, you might say, a little Russian, an unfamiliar alphabet, a new terrain to navigate.

Of the next two Renko books, Polar Star was terrifically compelling, and Red Square, for my money, delivered the most satisfying finish, but in between Gorky Park and Polar Star came a standalone, Stallion Gate. The guy gets my vote for sheer audacity. Stallion Gate is about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project. I've nibbled around the edges of this subject meself, and you can only go one of two ways, I think, either gnomic and allusive or full frontal. No half-measures. Smith takes the bet, all or nothing, and Stallion Gate is high-risk, spending the writer's own capital, not coasting on the interest. He almost recovers his investment. The book is just that - almost. You can make out the shadow it casts, and the signature of the wind scouring the sand, but it never quite fills its own sails.

There have been eight Arkady Renko thrillers in all, to date, and in between, three more novels without him. Rose, which came out in 1996, is to my mind very underrated, a Victorian historical Gothic (not at all pastiche), a steam engine of a book, a mechanical wonder, hissing and dripping with condensation, levers and armatures, drive shafts and metal fatigue, shaking the rails. Sort of a cross between John Buchan and Wilkie Collins. December 6th, from 2002, is a Tokyo spy story - the title gives that away - and a nice play on the gaijin as secret agent, first cousin to the Raj-boy Kim, echoes of Philip Kerr and Alan Furst. I found it hugely entertaining.

Which brings us to the latest release, actually in 2016, The Girl from Venice. I'd call it a departure, or at least somewhat. It has the guileless and obstinate Martin Cruz Smith hero, marooned by his honor, and the ominously claustrophobic menace of the time period, the exhausted last gasp of Fascist Italy, the Americans clawing their way north, the Germans fighting a stubborn rearguard action. On the other hand, Cenzo, the lead, has an endearing sweetness to his nature, and to all intents, the book is at heart a romantic fable.

Magic realism isn't something you'd anticipate from this writer, and The Girl from Venice isn't, exactly. But there's an unexpected playfulness. I kept waiting for the darkness to swallow everybody up, and it doesn't happen. Yes, we definitely get some nasty, sinister people drifting in and out, and the girl Giulia is the last survivor of a Jewish family, lost to the fortunes of war. For all his clownishness, Il Duce has caused enormous human dislocation and suffering. You're not saddened in the least when the Red partisans catch up to him. This stuff happens, though, mostly off-stage. You don't get a lot of explicit. The heroics, too, are kind of muted and self-deprecating. like Cenzo himself. We know innocence is a casualty of war, and all too many innocents, but in this telling, basta.

POSTSCRIPT

I met Bill Smith at Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe, a few years back. He was getting over some grievous upper respiratory crud, his voice playing hide-and-seek, but he was extremely game and gracious. He did a long Q&A (the most recent book was Three Stations), and soldiered through with humor and patience. He gave good weight.

We talked briefly the next day, about the end of the Cold War, mostly, and when at one point I mentioned having been a Russian intelligence linguist, he admitted he didn't really speak much Russian. I think my jaw did literally drop. Bill ducked his head and smiled. He'd always used a wingman, he said, the better to get it right.

Red Square turns on a mistranslation from English to Russian, or more specifically, a misunderstanding by an American whose idiomatic Russian is almost but not quite native. "Square," a public space, vice "square," the geometric shape, but in Russian usage, two different words, ploshchad' for the place, kvadrat for the other.

Where did Bill Smith, whose command of Russian isn't what it might be, happen across the distinction? Perhaps it was luck, reaching out to pluck at his sleeve like an old Baba Yaga on the Moscow subway platform, trying to sell books of matches or locks of Stalin's hair.

13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens


Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.

Ugh!

How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?

12 March 2018

Viva la difference


by Jan Grape

Jan Grape
As a female writing about a female character I feel it is all natural because I am a woman. I can put my head into the mind of a young woman or an older woman.

I also think I can write a fairly good representation of a male character. Mainly because I had two boys and I had a husband for almost 40 years who was a great teacher about men and how they think.

Of course, I'm not an expert because I have never been a man. I did mention good maybe not great.

However, through the years of reading I have run across writers who I think are able to write strong and excellent characters who happen to be of the opposite sex.

Susan Rogers Cooper has a male character, Milt Kovack, who is a sheriff. He is such a realistic male character that Susan has even relieved a fan letter chiding her for publishing under a woman's name. The fan swore she had to be a man.

I have to agree in part because I know Susan is a woman, but she does write a very realistic male.

On the other side, John Lutz writes very realistic women characters. They are strong, independent and certainly never depend on a male to rescue them.

Robert B. Parker also wrote strong women. He often got into philosophical discussions with women leaving them surprised.

Best-selling author Michael Connelly has written a new book, THE LATE SHOW, featuring  Detective Renee Ballard. This is a female character he fully intends to be a series character.

In the back of the book is an interview. The question is asked if he can describe Renee with one word. He has described Harry Bosch as "relentless." Michael says he knows a real-life homicide Detective Roberts that Renee is loosely based on and he would describe Roberts as "fierce," which is close to relentless.

A woman detective working in a job that is predominately male has to be better than her male co-workers in order to gain respect. She must be fierce.

I think this is true and yet to make a female character more realistic she should show a little vulnerability. Unless your plan is to have her be a bitch. Personally, I think Connelly has done a fine job with Detective Ballard.

Viva la difference.

11 March 2018

The making of a psychopath - A vignette


by Mary Fernando

If Leigh Lundin suggests an article topic, it is always one that is both intriguing and complicated. His ideas keep me up at night. They get under my skin.

When Leigh asked me what creates a psychopath, I knew that was a question worth tackling. It is too big a question to answer fully. I would, however, like to present a small vignette, a window into this issue: please let me introduce Phineas Gage and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC.

In 1848, a railway foreman named Phineas Gage, had a horrific accident. An explosion shot a metal rod shot through his head. If you look at the diagram of how the rod entered his brain, the fact he survived was remarkable. At first it appeared that Phineas survived the accident with his physical and mental abilities intact. However, as time passed, it became increasingly clear that his personality changed. He went from being a well-liked, balanced man who was socially adept, to being socially inappropriate and uncaring.

Phineas and metal rod
Phineas and metal rod
What is interesting for the purposes of our question, is that Phineas developed an ‘acquired sociopathy’, or ‘pseudo-psychopathy’. Since then, we have noted that lesions to this part of the brain have left other people with similar impairments, with otherwise normal intellectual function. They have an absence of empathy. They lack interest in the well-being of others.

Every area of the brain is a true team player. No area functions independently, each receiving inputs from many areas and sending outputs to many areas. So, to just talk about one area is a little odd but for the purposes of this essay, I will treat the VMPFC as a sole player. It deserves a spotlight and to take centre stage.

We know that damage to this area causes a defect in empathy. However, few psychopaths have injuries to their brain like Phineas. There may be a genetic component to the development of psychopaths, but here I would like to concentrate on the development of this area.

The VMPC does not come fully developed at birth. It grows and develops, most rapidly before one year of age, and continuing during early childhood.

The VMPC changes in response to the relationships the baby has which can either enhance or diminish its growth.

Enhancing the VMPC growth comes from being loved, with hugs, holding and – most importantly – a responsive adult who says, hey, you are hungry, scared, alone, in pain, let me help. I will hold you, feed you, take care of you. That interaction is the opposite of neglect. It is love in action. And love for a baby is always love in action. From this, the baby gets the social information to form connections later on, and the happiness bathes the VMPC with growth enhancing substances released by the brain.

If an infant is neglected, the VMPC does not grow as successfully, in part, because of the lack of social information and growth enhancing substances. The rest of the story is that the stress of being unattended bathes the baby’s brain in the stress hormone - cortisol - that has a corrosive impact on brain development. This is not an all-or-nothing situation. However, true neglect, like that found in infants raised in orphanages with no interaction, results in true deficits. In some severely neglected infants, we find a functional hole in not just the VMPC, but in the area around it called the orbitofrontal cortex.

Abuse is another way that the VMPC gets damaged. The VMPC of a frightened infant will be bathed in corrosive cortisol and that does not bode well for future empathy.

Now that I have introduced a few of the players in the crafting of a psychopath, I would like to emphasize another one: nuance. Many neglected and abused people do not turn into psychopaths. There is something in the severity of the early experiences and also, likely, a genetic predisposition.

A final thought. For mystery writers, the issue is often about murder and, quite frankly, most murders are not committed by psychopaths. The vast number of murders are committed by people who forget to look into someone’s eyes and see another person. This can be momentary or it can be part of a general lack of empathy. So, nuance means that people who are neglected and/or abused may have a deficit of empathy that allows them to commit murder.

If Phineas and the VMPC have another lesson to teach us, I believe it is that we need to treat our infants well. We all make mistakes as parents but if, on balance, we love them, hold them and don't let them live in fear, we are likely to grow that part of the brain that allows them the most human gift of all: empathy.

10 March 2018

Zip Gun Bop: Songs About Crime & Criminals


by Libby Cudmore

Libby Cudmore
Let’s be real, I could write about crime songs all day, because there are a billion of them. But we’ll come back to this series every so often, because songs about the wrong side of the law are my favorite genre of music. This month’s theme? The criminals themselves, the best of the bad guys and all of their gruesome deeds. Consider this the start of your master heist mix tape.

  1. Kid Charlemagne” Steely Dan (The Royal Scam). Oh, like you didn’t see this coming. Steely Dan writes a LOT of songs about crime and criminal acts, ranging from drugs to murder to gambling to prostitution to child molestation. But “Kid Charlemagne” remains not only their greatest song, but possibly the greatest song in the history of all pop music (Fight me, I dare you.) This song, inspired by famed, ah, chemist Owsley Stanley, is a little tiny novel in itself, the tension building through Larry Carlton’s legendary guitar solo, from the talk of the town to hiding drugs from the cops. Is there gas in the car….?

  2. The Long Arm of The Law” Warren Zevon (Transverse City) Zevon, like Becker and Fagen, is no goody-two-shoes when it comes to songs about crime, and as a fan of Raymond Chandler and a friend of crime and thriller luminaries like Stephen King and Carl Hiassan, it should be no surprise that mercenaries and murders crept into his songs. But “The Long Arm of the Law,” like “Kid Charlemagne,” is a whole arching narrative, starting with a gun runner in South America and ending with him in chains. “Only the dead get off scot-free,” he laments, and he isn’t wrong.

  3. I Remember Larry” ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic (Bad Hair Day). I love this one because it’s so unexpected. The man who gave us “Eat It” and “Like a Surgeon” can also go to some dark places, rapidly escalating a series of pranks played on the narrator by his neighbor Larry, who makes prank phone calls, post embarrassing photos and dumps toxic waste on the singer’s lawn—where he got toxic waste is probably another song—to the final snap in the last verse. “If the cops ever find him who knows what they’ll say/but I’m sure if ol’ Lar were still with us today/he would have to agree with me/it was a pretty good gag!” Yankovic bleats cheerfully. April Fools can be deadly, folks.

  4. Sweet and Tender Hooligan” The Smiths. (Louder Than Bombs) Who doesn’t love a bad boy, especially one on a post-punk beat and a Morrissey wail? Maybe I’ll put this one on a mix for LesterNygaard.

  5. Only a Lad” Oingo Boingo (Only a Lad). Danny Elfman takes a decidedly less romantic look at teenage criminals, snarking on a soft society that lets arsonists, car thieves and murders walk free because of their white and suburban precociousness. This song is just as true today as it ever was, as young men repeatedly get away with rape, assault and other crimes because, hey, boys will be boys, right?

  6. Hospital Food” The Eels (Electro-Shock Blues). Dark and low and grimy like an alley after midnight, everything about this song, sound and lyrics and all, captures a hitman’s nightlife. I think of Vic Mackey when I hear this one, or Eric Powell’s The Goon and Franky.

  7. Gimme The Goods” Boz Scaggs. (Two Down, Then Left) Another pulp-novel narrative coming out of the yacht rock canon, Boz takes his all the way back to 1948, telling a doomed tale of drug runners, complete with one final and badly botched job, a bullet wound, a femme fatale and the wail of sirens coming down rain-slicked streets. I would watch whatever movie was made from this song.

  8. Opportunities” Pet Shop Boys (Please). “If you’ve got the inclination/I’ve got the crime” is the most perfect invitation to wicked deeds ever set to music. This is the soundtrack to assembling your team for a casino heist, a bank job or maybe a long con played out of a sleazy motel room.

  9. Stool Pigeon” Kid Creole and the Coconuts (Tropical Gangsters). Sure, he’s bringing in the bad guys, but this ex-con isn’t getting the hero’s ballad for turning in his old friends to the FBI. Singing the chorus through the crackling static of a policeman’s radio, Kid Creole seems to be warning him of the oldest adage in the book—snitches get stitches. So maybe he’s got a plane and a boat and a new face, but all that money can’t buy him the kind of friends he had in the joint.

  10. Zip Gun Bop” Royal Crown Revue (Mugzy’s Move) The neo-swing revival of the late 1990s drew much of its songwriting inspiration from pulp of the 1940s and no one drew more heavily on it than Royal Crown Revue, widely considered to be the founders of the movement. This gangster-addled number incorporates the slow scream of the police siren, rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire and plenty of other genre pastiche.

09 March 2018

Just the instrument


by
O'Neil De Noux

2:46 a.m., and I lift my fingers from the keyboard and look at what I've just written on the screen in front of me and realize it's a pretty good paragraph, almost eloquent. Did I write this? Eloquent? We'll see if it makes the cut to stay in the book. I've cut lots of stuff I thought eloquent at first.

The characters keep moving and talking and I stay along with them, typing it out and wonder how many people are going to read this and if they do, will they think of me. No. Why? Because I'm not important. The story is important. The people in it are important. The feelings brought to the reader are important. I'm just the instrument. It flows through me but I'm not important and that's how it should be.

Plot is important, especially in a mystery story. Moving without a plot is like walking through swamp water where your feet can easily bog down and you have to struggle to get moving again. Having said that, I've written stories after creating characters and a situation and not plotting the story and it worked.  It was hard work, but it worked. Writing fiction is confusing work. There are no rules. Except getting it written.

When I wrote my historical novel BATTLE KISS, I knew the Americans would win the Battle of New Orleans. What I didn't know was how the villians (The British) were so heroic and faced incredible hardships to end up on that battlefield only to get slaughtered. I found a starting point, knew how the battle would turn out, created characters and let them lead me through it all.


I've done the same thing with mysteries, often changing the plot as I go through it, dropping in a body or two. What I don't write well are formula stories. Wish I could as they seem to sell.

Like many other writers, sometimes I'm focused like a laser and everything falls into place. Sometimes I have no idea what the hell I'm doing. The odd thing, when writing a novel especially, is to let it simmer when it seems like you're stuck. Daydream about the story when you're away from the computer. EVERY time I've done this - it comes to me. The solution. Why? Because I'm the instrument. The device that gets it done. A novel is a living creature struggling to be born.


In SAINT LOLITA I knew I needed one thing to make it different from other books in the series. Put most of the action away from New Orleans and see how my recurring character LaStanza does away from home. Big problem at first as I researched which Caribbean island to set the story. I'd been to some islands but did not know enough about any island and internet research bogged me down. Hey, it's a novel. Fiction. So I created the island of SAINT LOLITA which lies 76 miles west of Grenada. The novel struggled through my limited intelligence to live. But it's alive. And the Lolita joke worked well.


I knew HOLD ME, BABE would be about a lost song. I gave it to New Orleans Private Eye Lucien Caye and let him go with it. Other characters peeked in, some became important, some not so but the book came together and was nominated for a SHAMUS Award. Same with THE LONG COLD. I'd worked a couple cold cases when I was a homicide detective. What if I had LaStanza work a 30-year-old unsolved murder of someone he went to school with? THE LONG COLD was also nominated for a SHAMUS so someone must have liked reading it.



Sometimes the instrument works like a laser - sharp and focused. Sometimes it gets stuck in mud. Sometimes it doesn't know what the hell it's doing. But it gets done. The short story, the novel, comes together and it's a great feeling re-reading later and thinking - Did I write this?

That's all I have today.

www.oneildenoux.com

08 March 2018

An Interview with Hist-Myst Author Ruth Downie (Redux)


by Brian Thornton

For me one of the points of contributing to this blog is to help bring attention to the work of authors whose work merits such exposure. Ruth Downie is one of those authors, and her latest book, Memento Mori, drops today. It's the eighth in her award-winning Gaius Petreius Ruso series, novels set in early second century AD Britain, with the narrative split between Ruso, a Roman citizen and army doctor, and his Briton wife, the indomitable Tilla.

I had the great good fortune to interview Ruth about her series in advance of the publication of the fifth book in the series (Semper Fidelis) in the fall of 2013. Ruth's insights about both writing in general and writing historical mysteries in particular, have weathered well, and I thought it might be helpful for readers of this blog to get a second bite at the apple. 

The original interview, lightly edited to update the chronology of her publishing career, can be found below.

Oh, and READ Memento Mori! You can get it here.

                                                                   *          *          *


Ruth Downie is the author of eight historical mysteries set in ancient Roman-occupied Britain. Her protagonist Gaius Petreius Ruso is a Gaul-born Roman citizen serving in Britain as an army doctor. In the first book he saves the life of a dying slave- a strong-willed Briton named Tilla, who becomes Ruso's "housekeeper," and eventually his wife. Together the pair find themselves plunged into a series of awkward situations (with Tilla usually doing the plunging!) invariably resulting in Ruso's reluctant investigation of some sort of ill-concealed malfeasance.
  
Ruth, thanks very much for taking the time to answer some questions about yourself and your work. First: please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I worked as a secretary/administrator after University, and made a mental escape into creative writing as an adult. This started with short stories, and I was hugely encouraged by being runner-up in a “Start a Novel” competition for a national newspaper (The Daily Mail) and by winning the Fay Weldon section of the BBC’s “End of Story” competition. Medicus started as three chapters for another “start a novel” competition run by the Historical Novel Society, (to whom I’m hugely grateful). There are now five novels in the series, and a sixth should be published in the summer of 2014. Who’d have thought it?!

Meanwhile I’m delighted to have returned to live in the West Country after many years’ absence. I have a husband, two grown-up sons and a cat, and am never happier than when on an archaeological dig in the sunshine.

How did you come to being a writer?

My degree was in English literature, but frankly that put me off - when you spend three years reading literary masters, anything you might produce yourself looks feeble in comparison. It was only years later when I had small children at home and was studying for an accountancy exam in the evenings that I decided I needed to loosen my brain up, and tentatively ventured into a Creative Writing class.

So why write historical mystery? And why a character from Britain's distant past? Especially someone so "non-Briton" as Gaius Petreius Ruso?


I never realised how interesting ancient history was until we went on a family visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Rather late, it dawned on me that the past was populated by real people, and that they had been here. When we learned in a museum that, “Roman soldiers were not allowed to marry, but were allowed to have relationships with local women”, I began to wonder what must have happened to those women. So initially I was fascinated by the mystery of all those lost stories: the murders came later.  

As for Ruso: I wanted a foreigner’s take on the Britons, and I liked the tension of that foreigner being part of a long-term occupying force. It was interesting to have Britannia as what we’d now think of as a “developing country” – especially as plenty of the Britons were not at all interested in development, and would rather have been left alone.

The character of Tilla is dynamically drawn, possessed of a unique voice, and plays an important role in each of the books in this series. Did you envision writing something wherein a "female counterpart" would play such a large role when you first started writing about Ruso and his world, or did Tilla "intrude" on your original plans?

Tilla was definitely there from the start: she’s the “local woman” who has a thing or two to teach the know-it-all Romans.

In my own experience with writing and publishing mystery-themed historical fiction I've found the research itself to be something of a necessary quagmire. On the one hand it's a requirement (albeit an enjoyable one) if you wish to have the ring of authenticity to your work. On the other hand, it's possible to go too far, to place too much emphasis on it, to include so much historical description that it bogs down the narrative. You seem to have a terrific handle on this, including enough historical detail to give your narrative the proper "feel" for the period involved, without overdoing it. How do you tackle the question of research: how much to do, how much to include? And do you continue to research once you've begun your actual drafting of the novel?

To be honest I’ve never really got the research under control. I’d happily read books, wander round sites and museums, and trawl around the Internet all day every day. (Who wouldn’t?) I’ve also done a lot of archaeological digging on a Roman villa site and a certain amount of hanging around re-enactors and wearing mock Roman clothes, which is great for getting the ‘feel’ of the past.  It’s quite a struggle to set all this aside and get on with putting the words in order, and I’m very easily distracted back into research if something crops up that I’m not sure about. 


As a reader, however, I’m very impatient. I want to know what happens next. I’m not interested in struggling through the undigested fruits of the author’s research - although if I ever find a way to fit a clue into the patterns on Romano-British box flue tiles, they’ll turn up somewhere in a plot.  I’m aware of the advice that everything should be relevant to the story, although I fear I don’t always abide by it.  Sometimes I can’t resist slipping in an entertaining fact. Semper Fidelis has the “epispasm,” the procedure on offer in the ancient world for any gentleman brave enough to want to disguise his circumcision. I suspect that my subconscious may have arranged part of the plot specially to get that in…

In your nonfiction asides outside the narrative of you novels you do a nice job of breaking down what stems from fact and what is pure invention within your work. Do you find fans appreciative of that?

I’m glad you asked that! I’ve often wondered whether it was a good idea or not, because people seldom comment on it. However - I’m writing this from Crimefest, so yesterday I took advantage of being on a discussion panel to ask the audience what they thought. It turns out that most people think it’s a good idea. Several said they glance through the notes before they read a book, which I confess I do, too. And as my fellow-panellist Jane Finnis pointed out, ‘nobody has to read it if they don’t want to.’

Speaking of "fans," every writer of historical fiction who stays in the game long enough eventually has at least one encounter with someone who approaches them either in person or via email, etc., and insists they got this or that historical detail "wrong." Do you find this a challenge? How do you address this sort of thing?

I’m not a historian, but mercifully this doesn’t happen as often as it did in my nightmares after I found out the first novel was going to be published. I’m fine with it if people contact me personally – sometimes it gives me a chance to explain. (I really MUST check future US editions to make sure the word ‘corn’ is translated into ‘wheat’ because it’s very distracting for the discerning American reader to find the Romano-Britons apparently growing what we call sweetcorn, or maize.)

At other times, although it’s always a blow to the pride to realise you’ve got something very publicly wrong, it’s useful to know for next time and I’m glad people are interested enough to care. What I do struggle with is the very occasional internet reviewer who complains about an error that isn’t an error at all. I don’t reply to reviews but it does bother me that someone else might read that, assume the critic is correct and be put off trying the book.


Can you briefly walk us through your process?

Well I’ll try, but only because it will serve as a warning to others. On a good day I wake up with an idea about something I’ve been wrestling with the day before, and scribble it down in the bedside notebook – I try to write a page or two about something every morning, even if it’s only the weather. Then I type it up later and with luck, I get sufficiently involved in it to lose track of time. On a bad day I footle about checking emails for far too long, waste the most productive part of the day, and end up with nothing except a feeling of guilt.

A good day will see 1000 words added to the count. A nearly-at-the-deadline day might even see 3000 words, but not necessarily the right ones.  I’ve now bought “Freedom” software in an attempt to keep myself away from the Internet. And yes, I do know how feeble that sounds!

The best part of the process is re-writing, when the editor has pointed out what doesn’t work and hopefully what does, and you have a chance to try and fix it.

Setting sure seems to play a vital role in your work. So far in your series you've resisted setting any of your books in the same place twice, featuring locations such as Deva (Chester), Londinium (London), Eburacum (York), and the area north of Hadrian's Wall in lowland Scotland and in southern Gaul (France). Any chance of a return to one or any of these places? Also, any chance that Ruso and Tilla will eventually wind up in Aquae Sulis (Bath), perhaps to take the waters, only to find....?

Book Six (2014's Tabula Rasa), will be back in the Hadrian’s Wall region, because historically I’ve reached the years when the wall was built. But instead of Corbridge, we’ll be thirty miles away in the central region, nearer to Vindolanda and up in the hills.

As for Aquae Sulis - Book Two was very nearly set there. I’d bought all the research books and been for the field trip – but told nobody else - when I discovered Kelli Stanley’s website and found that she was about to send her own Roman medic there in her next book. There’s only a limited amount of source material to work with and it would have been silly to try and draw from the same well, so I fear Ruso won’t be taking the waters after all!

(Interviewer's Note: Ruth apparently got over her reluctance to set one of her books in Bath, because her new book, Memento Mori, IS set there!)


Which authors, regardless of genre categorization, do you consider your primary influences as an author? And are there authors whose work you enjoy, but don't consider influences?

That’s tricky, because I suspect in some way we’re influenced by everything we read. (*Note to self: spend less time messing about on the Internet, LOL*) Discovering Lindsey Davis’s Falco novels gave me the confidence to carry on writing Roman-era fiction with modern dialogue and humour – something I wasn’t sure was ‘allowed’ when I started doing it. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian novels, because Renko is such a superb lead character. CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series is a must-read, and anything by Elmore Leonard is an example of how to tell a fine story with a few words.



                                                                   *          *          *

I'd like to wrap by reiterating what a terrific series this is, and what a wonderful writer Ruth Downie is. Whether you're into historical fiction, mystery, or just really like a great tale well-told, the adventures of Ruso and Tilla are not to be missed.

See you in two weeks!

07 March 2018

Write in Haste, Publish at Leisure


by Robert Lopresti

There were so many killings that year I had to look up his name.  It was Philando Castile.

He was a Black man in Minnesota, killed by a Latino cop moments after telling the man that he had a licensed handgun in the car. The police officer was acquitted.

The shooting happened on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. The next day someone put up a link to this (already existing) video in which a jolly cop and cheerful civilian explain how to safely inform a police officer that you are carrying a weapon.  Someone had added in the comments, approximately: "For best results, be White."

The next day I went to synagogue and the rabbi's sermon was about the killing. As I biked home I remembered that video.  The plot of a story burst into my brain.

I am usually  a slow writer.  Very slow.  It takes me months to write a first draft and then a couple of years to turn it into something publishable.

But I wrote the very short "Nobody Gets Killed" in two hours that Friday night.  I revised it the next day and sent it to a friend for editing.  By Monday it was on its way to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and you can find it in their current, March/April, issue.


I have said before that every piece of fiction involves two sides of the brain, the Miner, and the Jeweler.  Some people talk about conscious/unconscious mind, or left and right brain, but this metaphor is what works for me.  The Miner digs out the raw material and may do some of the work, but eventually he hands it off to the Jeweler who polishes it into something that is hopefully publishable.  Often when the Miner is running the show the writer has little conscious memory of the process.  "It's like I wasn't even there.  The words just flowed out."

A lot of the time my Miner comes up with only the bare idea and leaves the Jeweler to do everything else.  But "Nobody Gets Killed" was 90% Miner.  Doesn't mean it's a better or worse story for that, by the way.  You will have to read it and see what you think.

One more thing...  I have just had stories in three issues of Hitchcock in a row.  "The Chair Thief" was a short comic tale  of office politics, with an unexpected sting in its tail.   "Train Tracks" was a long historic semi-Western story of revenge and redemption.  And now "Nobody Gets Killed" is a brief ripped-from-the-headlines slice-of-life anecdote.  Hitchcock has purchased one more  but it is not yet scheduled; "A Bad Day for Algebra Tests" is a comic crime caper.

It would appear that I am having some difficulty establishing a consistent brand for myself.   But as long as Hitchcock keeps buying (I am up to thirty sales there) I guess I shouldn't complain.

By the way, I wrote another piece about writing "Nobody Gets Killed," and it appears on Trace Evidence, the AHMM blog.



06 March 2018

Book ’Em, Paulie


by Paul D. Marks

A weird thing happened the other day. It’s not a unique thing. It’s not something I’ve never done before—in fact I’ve done it many times. But quite honestly I don’t do it as often as I used to (get your minds out of the gutter here).

I went to a bookstore. And it was almost a revelatory experience.

Now, I have to admit it wasn’t a quirky little independent bookstore. It was a Barnes and Noble. And it was a wonderful experience. The feel of the books. The ability to read the jacket flaps. To see books on display that I might not come across online. And while checking out the clerk had some interesting things to say about one of the books I was buying, A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window.

One of my favorite pastimes is meandering through bookstores. And I'm not a snob about it. I like both the big chain stores and the small independents. Each has strengths and weaknesses. The independents often carry a more eclectic stock or are sometimes dedicated to a single genre, such as mysteries. Their staffs are usually more knowledgeable and well read. The big box stores often have more variety and selection.

L to R: me, Naomi Hirahara, Darrell James and Rochelle Staab
 at The Mystery Bookstore in Westwood
But either way, I look at going to bookstores as a social experience. Even if I say no more than "Hello" and "Thank you" to the clerk checking me out, I have a social experience with hundreds of authors and books. And that “hello” is more than I get when shopping online.

Also, on the social level I’ve met women I ended up dating at bookstores (before I was married, of course!) and have seen authors I like do signings and readings. Check out a James Ellroy event some time if you want to see insanity in motion. And I've done signings and speaking gigs at bookstores myself.

I like bookstores that stay open late. That I can run to when an urge for something in particular strikes at an odd hour—and I keep pretty odd hours. It was a place to go. A destination. Before moving out of the city proper (Los Angeles) to a more rural area, I would often hop in the car at all hours to go find a book to satisfy my addiction. But from here, everything is a trek.

Me doing a reading at Book Soup in West Hollywood
But that's getting harder and harder to do, even in the city as there are less bookstores. And yes, I also patronize Amazon, so in that sense I’m part of the problem. But I also still patronize brick and mortar bookstores when I can. And there is nothing like browsing through one, discovering new books and authors. And that’s what it’s all about: Discovery, with a capital D. Whenever I see a bookstore, I want to go in. Whenever I go in, I buy at least one or two things, hoping to help keep the stores afloat and also just cause I like books. And if you saw our house you’d know what I’m talking about. Books everywhere, including on shelves in the garage.

A scene from the movie Harry and Tonto
 where you can see Pickwick Books on Hollywood Blvd in the background
Before my mom got sick for many years, we would often go to lunch and then to a bookstore together. We’d peruse the aisles, not always the same aisles, and both of us would leave with armloads of books. That’s one of my fondest memories of her.

In the olden days, Los Angeles had a ton of bookstores. Specialty stores and general bookstores. Westwood alone (in West Los Angeles, between Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, home of UCLA and the Bruins for you non-Angelinos) had a ton of bookstores. It was so much fun just walking the streets of that little neighborhood and hitting all of them, and maybe getting something to eat and going to a movie as well.

Westwood also had the Mystery Bookstore, which began life as the Mysterious Bookshop in West Hollywood, the West Coast branch of Otto Penzler’s famous Mysterious Bookshop in New York. Both places were treasures in more ways than one and I’m truly sorry that they are no more. Luckily, while in NYC last April I got to visit the original Mysterious Bookshop and it was an amazing amalgam of mystery books. I can’t wait to go back.

Unfortunately, all those Westwood bookstores are gone now.

Other specialty stores that are still with us include, Larry Edmunds for film and TV books and Samuel French that specializes in theatre books.
Pickwick Books in Hollywood 

Back in the day, on Hollywood Boulevard near Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and definitely worth the trip, was Pickwick Books, three stories of book lovers’ delights. And way back in the day, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Faulkner, Bogart, Marlene Dietrich and many other celebs would haunt this place. Though I’m sure F. Scott wished he hadn’t one time. He went into the store and asked if they had The Great Gatsby by one F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk told him, “We don’t stock the work of dead authors on this floor. You’ll have to try upstairs [where used books, bargains and the like were kept].” The clerk later said, “I didn’t even recognize him and it’s been making me sick ever since. Especially since he died shortly after that. Another customer who knew him told me my not recognizing him and thinking he was dead had a catastrophic effect on him.”

There were also used book stores (and still are). Down in Long Beach was Acres of Books, a mere 12,000-square-feet. I went there several times but it was a bit of a drive. Closer to home and one of my faves was Book City on Hollywood Boulevard. Partly because of the books and partly because they had one of my favorite pix of the Beatles outside (see pic). They would order hard to find books for me and always came through. And in West Hollywood was the very independent George Sand Books. A small store that held a lot of readings. And even as I put the polish on this piece another one bites the dust: http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-caravan-last-chapter-20180301-htmlstory.html 

Book City in Hollywood
Even most of the mall bookstores are gone. Dalton’s and Walden. And Crown Books. It was always good when I had to go to a mall for one reason or another to be able to duck into a bookstore and pick up something.

There’s still bookstores, of course, though maybe not as many. But hopefully things will shake out and people will want the human and tactile experience of going to bookstores.

Small World Books in Venice Beach
I was thinking about including a list of now-gone bookstores, but for many of you, especially outside of LA it wouldn’t really mean anything. Suffice to say there’s a ton of them. But there’s also a bunch (both new and used bookstores) still around, so if you’re in LA you might want to check them out. But remember L.A. is very spread out and even though some places might seem close to one another they might not be. And if I’ve left any off this list, I’m sorry, it’s not intentional:

$10 or Less Bookstore – Tampa Ave., Northridge
Angel City Books and Records – Pier Avenue, Santa Monica
Barnes and Noble – various locations
Book Soup – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
BookMonster – Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica
Books on the Boulevard – Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks
Bookstar – Ventura Blvd, Studio City (owned by B&N)
Chevalier Books – Larchmont Avenue, Hancock Park/Los Angeles
Eso Won Books – Degnan Avenue, Leimert Park (Los Angeles)
Gatsby Books – Spring Street, Long Beach
Iliad Bookshop, The – Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood (near Universal Studios)
Larry Edmund’s – Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood
Last Bookstore, The – Spring Street, downtown L.A.
Mysterious Galaxy – Balboa Avenue, San Diego
Mystery Ink Bookstore – Warner Ave., Huntington Beach
Mystery Pier Books – Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood
Open Book, The – Soledad Canyon, Canyon Country/Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County)
Pop-Hop Bookstore, The – York Boulevard, Highland Park (Los Angeles)
Samuel French – Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
Skylight Books – Vermont Avenue, Los Feliz (near Hollywood)
Small World Books – Ocean Front Walk/the Venice Boardwalk, Venice Beach
Vroman’s – Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

So, tell us about your city’s bookstores (now and then) and your favorites.

***

And now for the usual BSP:

I’m happy to say that my story “There’s An Alligator in My Purse” has been selected for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology, Sunny Places, Shady People, edited by Greg Herren. I’m pleased to be included with fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and John Floyd.


Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com





05 March 2018

Misadventures


by Dale C. Andrews                                                 
 

[A] pastiche is a serious and sincere imitation in the exact manner of the original author.  

    --  Ellery Queen
        The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes  (1944)   

We have been using the word "pastiche" for decades, at least since Ellery Queen's The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, a collection of such stories, was published in 1944.  

     --  Chris Redmond 
          "You Say Fanfic, I Say Pastiche -- Is  there a
           Difference?” (2015) 

       This week (I am happy to announce) marks the culmination of a project that has kept me fairly busy for a good bit of the last year -- the publication of The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, co-edited by Josh Pachter and me, Dale Andrews. The anthology collects, for the first time, 16 stories, written over the course of some 70 years. The stories are “misadventures,” that is, pastiches, parodies and other homages, all inspired by author/detective Ellery Queen. For Josh and me putting together this collection has been a work of love. And it has also been a project that has been, well . . a long time coming.   

       Many of you may remember from previous SleuthSayer articles that Ellery occupies a particularly warm spot in my writing heart. Over the years I’ve written three Ellery Queen pastiches that have graced the pages of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and I’ve written numerous articles on Ellery and his exploits that have appeared on SleuthSayers. While some of the backstory to The Misadventures of Ellery Queen predates SleuthSayers, the recent story of how the collection came into being can be traced through various footprints throughout the history of this website.   

     Books collecting “misadventure,” that is, anthologies that carry forth the exploits of an established character but in stories penned by other authors, have a long pedigree. The best examples of misadventures are the many stories and anthologies offering up new Sherlock Holmes stories written outside of the established Arthur Conan Doyle canon. And the first collection of such stories was The Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by none other than -- Ellery Queen in 1944. (The collection was quickly withdrawn from the public following a copyright challenge from the Arthur Conan Doyle estate. Luckily for all of us the collection is now once again readily available.) 

       It was only natural that a fan of Ellery Queen who has also written new Ellery Queen adventures (that would be me!) would reasonably be expected to ponder why the stories not originally drafted by Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee but nonetheless featuring their detective creation Ellery have not been previously collected. EQ pastiches and parodies are not as numerous as those featuring Sherlock Holmes, but nevertheless many have popped up with some regularity since at least 1947, when Thomas Narcejac wrote (in French) Le Mystere de ballons rouge featuring Ellery, and the inspector. Since then Jon L. Breen, Francis Nevins, Edward D. Hoch and a host of others, both famous and lesser known, have also contributed Ellery Queen stories. So wouldn’t an Ellery Queen “misadventures” anthology make some sense?   

The Japanese Misadventures
     That was precisely the question I pondered in one of my earliest SleuthSayers articles, “Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun,” which posted on October 25, 2011. At the time the article was written I had just received a request to allow my first EQ pastiche, “The Book Case,” written in collaboration with my good friend Kurt Sercu, proprietor of Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction, to appear in exactly such an anthology. That volume, also entitled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen was published in 2012. But, as that earlier SleuthSayers post explains, the book, edited by Iiki Yusan, who also heads up the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan, was intended for the Japanese market and the stories it collects have been translated into Japanese. All of this is explained (and lamented) in that earlier article. Even back then, as I indicated in a response to a comment, I was ruminating over the possibility of an English language Misadventures anthology.   

       From 2012 on my author’s copy of the Japanese Misadventures just sat there on my own book case -- staring at me accusingly as nothing happened and the years slipped by. Since I don’t read Japanese about the only thing I could meaningfully ponder in Iiki Yusan’s Misadventures was the list of contributing authors, which appeared in English at the back of the book. The list included the likes of Francis Nevins, Jon Breen, Ed Hoch, and even me. 

        Also a guy named Josh Pachter.   

       Josh Pachter? Back in 2011 when I wrote that first SleuthSayers column the name meant nothing to me.   

       Josh, it turned out, has written many mystery stories during a career of almost fifty years -- including several homages featuring a character by the name of E.Q. Griffen. The reason I was unfamiliar with  these stories is the same reason that I had concluded that we needed a collection of Ellery’s misadventures -- Josh’s Ellery Queen homages were nearly impossible to find. Like almost all EQ pastiches, parodies and homages they were published originally in issues of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and that had occurred many years ago. As a practical matter those magazine issues were unavailable to the vast majority of the reading public. But even given this, I began to hear more and more about Josh, including the fact that he lived not all that far away from me, outside of Washington, D.C. in the Virginia suburbs.   

       So let's skip a few years and eventually alight in yet another SleuthSayers article.   

       In the summer of 2015 I received an email from my friend Francis (Mike) Nevins informing me that he would be traveling through Washington, D.C. that September. I immediately offered up our guest room, and Mike accepted. 

        Mike Nevins, as many of you will know, is an emeritus professor at St. Louis University Law School, a preeminent Ellery Queen scholar and the author of many short stories and books, including two seminal biographical works chronicling the lives and works of the two cousins who were Ellery Queen -- Fred Dannay and Manfred B. Lee: Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen, Author and Detective (1974) and the more recent Ellery Queen: The Art of Detection (2013). Mike’s 2013 book was, in fact, reviewed by me right here on SleuthSayers in January of 2013.   

       Mike is also the author of one of the finest Ellery Queen pastiches ever written -- “Open Letter to Survivors.”   

       When Mike accepted my invitation by return email he told me that he would really like to get together with an old friend during his D.C. stay. Another author. Named Josh Pachter. As I said, by then I knew who Josh was. Mike and I contacted Josh by email and dinner was scheduled for a September evening in the backyard of my home. The dinner (you guessed it) was the subject of my SleuthSayers article of September 27, 2015.    

Josh, Mike and me in the backyard. 
(Animation courtesy of Google!)
     As we chatted that evening it turned out that I was not the only one who had contemplated a collection of Ellery Queen misadventures. Josh’s first EQMM story -- that E.Q. Griffen homage -- was published in EQMM when he was just 16 years old, at a time when Frederic Dannay was still editor-in-chief of the magazine. Josh had thereafter become close friends with Dannay and had even broached the possibility of exactly such a volume with him. But nothing came of it.   

       It didn’t take long for the gears to begin to mesh. Maybe each of us thought. Just maybe working together we could actually do this.   

       And, to make a longer story short, we did! The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, which we compiled over the course of almost a year, has one story by each of us -- “The Book Case” for me; “E.Q. Griffen Earns his Name” for Josh. The other 14 stories are by other authors.  We had a lot of stories to choose from, and the final volume differs in many respects from the Japanese Misadventures anthology. Our book includes the first ever English translation of that 1947 Thomas Narcejac pastiche “The Mystery of the Red Balloons,” as well as Mike Nevin’s “Open Letter to Survivors.” Readers will also find Jon Breen’s pastiche “The Gilbert and Sullivan Clue,” and a particularly sneaky pastiche by Ed Hoch, which spent most of its literary life masquerading as an Ellery Queen-authored story . There are stories by Lawrence Block. William Brittain, James Holding and others. And the book also includes what is probably the most recent Queen homage (a sort of pastiche with it’s own twist) Edgar winner Joe Goodrich’s “The Ten-Cent Murder.” All of those, and quite a few others by authors famous and authors obscure share one thing in comon --  each was inspired by Ellery.   

       Josh and I are particularly pleased with the final product shaped by our publisher, Wildside Press, which has made the collection available in hard covertrade paperback, and Kindle editions.  

Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee
Picture courtesy of "Ellery Queen -- A website on Deduction"
       Choosing the stories, writing  introductions, and otherwise putting this volume together has been a joy for Josh and me for many reasons. Perhaps the greatest joy is mirrored in an observation by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM.  In these Misadventures, she has written, “Ellery Queen lives again.” That's what we were hoping for.   Dannay and Lee, writing as Ellery Queen observed in their introduction to that 1944 Sherlock Holmes Misadventure anthology that pastiches and parodies are "the next best thing to new stories."  

       And that was always what we wanted most to accomplish -- bringing some of the many adventures of Ellery Queen written by authors other than Dannay and Lee together in one volume.  We hope that readers will enjoy diving into these alternative adventures as much as we have enjoyed collecting them.

       One final note -- in addition to availability on-line, The Misadventures of Ellery Queen will also be on sale at the Malice Domestic convention at the end of April.  And Josh and I will both be there.  Just in case anyone might want . . . uhh . . . a signed copy?