Tuesday, August 04, 2015

“Heads” and Other Tales

Chances are it’s escaped your attention until this moment, but I have devoted my new Kirkus Reviews column to an interview with Paul Johnston, the Scottish-born author of Heads or Hearts (Severn House), the sixth entry in his award-winning series starring near-future Edinburgh investigator Quint Dalrymple. The fact that Heads or Hearts exists is a real treat for Quint fans, most of whom probably thought Johnston had given up on this sardonic ex-cop after 2001’s House of Dust. That Heads or Hearts is also an excellent thriller portending the release of still more Quint tales is further good news.

It’s not necessary that you be familiar with the previous five entries in Johnston’s series before tackling Heads or Hearts; the author provides ample background to help newcomers understand the fictional world in which this story’s action takes place. But reading those earlier works--Body Politics (1997), The Bone Yard (1998), Water of Death (1999), The Blood Tree (2000), and The House of Dust--would still be worthwhile, if only because Johnston clearly had fun imagining what Edinburgh might be like as a corrupted utopia. On his Web site he provides a bit of background to this series, which starts off in the year 2020, the setting for Body Politic:
The United Kingdom (and much of Europe) has been torn apart by drugs wars in the early years of the twenty-first century. Gangs of criminals run wild in most areas, but Edinburgh is different. In the last election of 2003, the people vote in the Enlightenment Party, a small grouping of university professors that promises to get rid of crime. They succeed in doing so, forming themselves into a Council of City Guardians backed up by a powerful force of auxiliaries (policemen and bureaucrats)--their ideas came from Plato, that well-known thinker and proto-fascist.

The ordinary citizens, as the bulk of the population is termed, benefit from guaranteed work, housing, welfare, and lifelong education. They also attend a compulsory sex session every week. On the downside, the regime has banned cars, computers, smoking, television, private phones, and popular music--and your partner in the weekly sex session is chosen for you by the authorities. Of course, things are not what they seem in this supposedly benevolent totalitarian system. Far from doing away with crime, the guardians have only pushed it underground. They are too busy looking after the tourists who come to Edinburgh for the year-round festival, the gambling, the licensed brothels, and the marijuana clubs. And where there’s sex, drugs, and rock-’n’-roll, you can be sure that crime will raise its ugly head …

Enter our hero. Quintilian--Quint, for short--Dalrymple is a former senior policeman who was demoted after refusing to accept orders. At the start of the series he works as a laborer, handling missing-persons cases in his spare time. He is tolerated by the guardians because he takes some pressure off the overworked City Guard--and because he’s good at what he does. Quint is a maverick who gets up the regime’s collective nose, a lover of whisky and the blues. You can trace his roots back to [Philip] Marlowe and Sam Spade, to the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes, and to any hard-nosed cop you care to name (Bullitt, Popeye Doyle, whoever)--though he has a softer, more intellectual side to him.
With all of that in mind, here’s my brief synopsis from Kirkus of the plot offered in Johnston’s new novel:
As Heads or Hearts opens, the year is 2033. The guardians have loosened some restrictions: citizens can again listen to blues and rock music, watch previously banned movies and acquire “half-decent coffee.” There’s also a referendum in the works to reconstitute Scotland. That reunification might be endangered, however, by a rash of crimes beginning with the discovery of a human heart in the middle of a football stadium. When a headless corpse is later found close to another playing field, the guardians summon Quint’s help. Once more paired with his old police colleague, the violence-prone Davie Oliphant, Quint sets out to determine whether these grisly finds are linked to a rise in local gang activity and sports betting, black-market dealings that implicate the guardians themselves or perhaps the upcoming referendum.
If Quint is a multifaceted character, his creator seems hardly less so. As Johnston explained in this top-notch 2003 interview with January Magazine contributors Ali Karim and Simon Kernick, he studied ancient and modern Greek at Oxford University, worked in the shipping industry, did a turn as a newspaperman in Athens, Greece, and taught English before embarking on a career penning fiction. For years he divided his time between the UK and Greece, but is currently residing in London. He’s now 13 years into his second marriage, his wife a Greek civil servant (“that much maligned breed”) named Roula.

Although Johnston started his career as a novelist turning out Quint yarns and winning awards for those works, he has since branched out into two other well-known series--one starring Alexandhros “Alex” Mavros, a Scots-Greek private eye based in modern Athens, the other featuring Matt Wells, a crime writer turned P.I. In addition, he’s composed a police procedural under the nom de plume Sam Alexander and is planning to launch another pseudonymous series.

Being an enthusiastic and curious interviewer, I tend to ask authors many more questions than I have room to accommodate their answers in my Kirkus columns. I followed that same path in my recent e-mail exchange with Paul Johnston and wound up with plenty of extra, intriguing material, covering everything from his interest in science fiction and his thoughts on Greece’s financial bailout to his author-father’s help in getting him started as a storyteller. Consider what follows to be Part II of my interview with Johnston, Part I being contained in this week’s Kirkus column.

Oxford friends-turned-authors Robert Wilson (left) and Paul Johnston at CrimeFest 2014. (Photograph by Ali Karim.)

J. Kingston Pierce: Are you still dividing your time between homes in southern Scotland and southern Greece’s Peloponnese region?

Paul Johnston: No, I’ve recently moved back to the UK to set up base camp in advance of getting my kids out of Greece in the next few years--no future for them there. I’ve also disposed of the Scottish house and have the use of the family flat in Edinburgh from time to time. Not sure where I’ll end up yet as I’m looking for a university creative writing job. Which does not mean that I’ll stop writing fiction. It was useful to have two homes in the past. Often I’d write about Scotland when in Greece and vice versa--there was a degree of objectivity that was advantageous. My family--and my 5,000-plus books and 1,500 CDs--are still in Nafplio so I will be back …

JKP: It would be understandable to regard the Quint Dalrymple series as science fiction, since it is set in the future--or at least a dystopian future as you imagined it in the 1990s. But do you think of it in that way? And are you a big SF fan?

PJ: The House of Dust was actually shortlisted [in 2002] for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, a major SF award. The thing is, anything that’s set in the future, even a few years hence, is classified as SF, whether you like it or not. So the Quint novels were crossover crime/SF, not a great place to be in terms of marketing. I do read SF--more now than I did when I first came up with Enlightenment Edinburgh--and I love it because it’s full of ideas; much more than crime fiction. On the other hand, I’m no scientist, so hard SF is beyond me. I also have to say that the pulp origins of much SF, primarily American, led to poor writing. There are plenty of exceptions--[Philip K.] Dick and [Kurt] Vonnegut are favorites. I think Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. I also have a high regard for Nineteen Eighty-Four, even though it’s a problematic novel. The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau are also great--and unusually short for [H.G.] Wells. But my favorite SF novel of them all is my fellow Scot David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus [1920], an almost forgotten, highly original, hugely poetic and doom-laden masterpiece. Oh, and I love SF movies. Blade Runner and the Alien series (even the rickety ones) are hardy perennials.

JKP: A variety of things have changed in your imagined Edinburgh since the story told in Body Politic. For readers who haven’t yet discovered or at least haven’t been keeping up with this series, could you describe the city’s evolution over the period about which you have written so far, 2020-2033?

PJ: Generally the regime--protectors of an independent and supposedly benign totalitarian city-state--has veered between tight control of citizens’ lives and more liberal periods. At the beginning there was no TV, phones, smoking, popular music, cars, or photos (too egocentric); this was balanced by guaranteed work for life, housing, lifelong education, and a compulsory weekly sex session with the partner chosen by the Recreation Directorate (lovely…). Ten thousand auxiliaries enforce the City Regulations and make sure the tourists attending the year-round festival are treated like royalty. Many of the auxiliaries are police officers, known as guardswomen/-men. By 2033 the Council has become unable to maintain its hard-line stance and citizens are treated more humanely--they can wear their hair and facial hair how they like, start (small) businesses, listen to blues and rock music (for your information I’m currently listening to the magnificent American band WhiskeyDick’s “Fallen Heroes”) and watch previously banned movies. The result is an increase in crime and gang activity. So much for the original Council’s proud--if self-deceiving--boast that there was no crime in the city.

JKP: And in what respects has Quint himself changed over the course of these now half-dozen books?

PJ: I find that difficult to answer as I have very little objectivity. Last year, before writing Heads or Hearts, I reread the five earlier novels. I couldn’t remember a lot of the action or characters--and some of the jokes really grated. I’d like to think that Quint develops as a character. He has some pretty awful experiences so it would be weird if he didn’t. But deep down he remains the maverick with the big mouth that I first envisaged and people enjoyed reading about. He’s more in touch with his emotions now, I think, but still smells a rat every time the Council involves him in a case. Trust no one in authority is his--and my--motto.

JKP: Heads or Hearts has much to do with murders and cover-ups and Quint’s investigation, but while all of that is going on, there are votes scheduled to determine whether the Scottish city-states should begin gathering again into a larger country, for the benefit of all. This seems an intriguing turn, especially in light of last year’s Scottish independence referendum. You must’ve been writing Heads or Hearts in the midst of that political debate. Did it inspire or flavor your plot?

PJ: Yes, it’s my take on the referendum for Scottish independence. I was writing the book during the debate and after the result. [In Heads or Hearts] Edinburgh citizens have to decide if they want to rejoin Scotland, though the referendum doesn’t happen in the book. The plot revolves around certain factions’ opposing views on independence, so I used a lot of elements from the real debate. In a novel, though, everything comes down to character. My position in Heads or Hearts is that people get overly committed to single positions and are unable to empathize with those of others. Coalition is a way forward, but not in my Edinburgh. In any case, (some) Scottish politicians are as flawed and avaricious as those in other countries. Satire is still essential, which is how I present things in Heads or Hearts. The title refers, among other things, to whether you allow your emotions free rein or whether you apply reason to problems--very enlightenment. There’s too much emotion in public affairs and political parties need to become more intellectually coherent.

JKP: Did you support the 2014 independence referendum?

PJ: I was fine about there being a referendum, but I imagine your question is really directed at what result I wanted. I was hugely conflicted. Most Scottish writers--including myself--were pro-independence because the country is culturally very different from the rest of the UK, especially southern England. On the other hand, I spent time in business and I wasn’t--and still am not--convinced that the Scottish National Party’s economic plans are credible. It’s a rough world for small countries--see what’s happening to Greece, which has more than double Scotland’s population--and being part of a larger state may be more secure. More recently the Nationalists won a huge majority in the Westminster election, doing the Labour Party no favors at all. The advantage is that Scotland will get more devolved powers. That may well lead irrevocably to independence, especially if the rest of the UK votes to leave the European Union; Scots are in the main great Europeans. Economics aside--which is, of course, ridiculous--I would be happy with a Scottish passport. So, I’m on the fence …

JKP: Although the Quint yarns are set in the near future, you enrich them with Scottish history. Is history a prime interest of yours?

PJ: Yes! I studied British (not Scottish) history at school, but my main concern was ancient Greece and Rome. I’ve since educated myself about Scotland’s past, although it isn’t an easy task for an atheist. The church--or rather, different churches--played such a large part in Scottish history that I needed to suspend my disbelief, so to speak. There are many cracks about the deleterious effects of organized religion throughout the series. The Council runs an atheist regime, though churchgoing is permitted. As in modern Britain, no one much cares to go.

JKP: Following the publication of your fifth Quint Dalrymple novel, The House of Dust, you turned to composing two other series, one set in Greece and starring P.I. Alex Mavros, the other led by a crime writer named Matt Wells. What did those ventures teach you about storytelling that you didn’t know from working on the Quint books?

PJ: The Mavros series--starting with the original trilogy of A Deeper Shade of Blue (later republished as Crying Blue Murder), The Last Red Death, and The Golden Silence--was very educational in terms of the narrative. I went to third-person [viewpoint], thus distancing myself from the narrator, and I also cut from Mavros to other characters, making the texts more complex and multi-focal. Which I learned a lot from. That distancing was also important because, unlike the slightly futuristic Quint books, those novels dealt with a society I’d experienced, that is with “real” history (in quotation marks because everyone has their own reality). I needed a hands-off approach to maintain some objectivity and the third-person did that.

As for the Matt Wells quartet--The Death List (easily my most successful book commercially in the UK, U.S., and several other countries), The Soul Collector, Maps of Hell, and The Nameless Dead--it went back to the first-person, with crime novelist-turned-hard-nosed P.I. Wells talking the talk, but again there were sections from other characters’ points of view in the third-person. So I was learning how to combine multiple ways of presenting material, and I hope I became a more rounded writer as a result.

JKP: Are you also working on another Alex Mavros novel?

PJ: No. I’m taking a break from Mavros, mainly because I’m out of Greece now and, frankly, have been ground down by the country’s problems. I imagine he’ll be back, though.

JKP: Since you have brought up Greece and its current financial difficulties a couple of times now, let me ask what you think of the country’s recent bailout referendum and the eurozone’s subsequent deal giving Greece money in exchange for pension cuts and tax increases. Do you think the Greek people got as good a result as they could’ve expected?

PJ: It’s a nightmare, but one that’s been going on for five years now. Many extended families [in Greece] live off one salary or pension. Many people work without being paid in the hope that their companies will survive. My wife’s civil-service salary has gone down by 40 percent and will be cut further soon. The lenders clearly decided that Greece was going to be punished for its reluctance to apply the austerity measures that many renowned economists see as discredited and completely unrealistic. There’s bound to be debt relief, so it should happen sooner or later. The crisis is partly Greece’s fault--it should never have joined the eurozone--but foreign banks lent very irresponsibly. The irony is that Germany has destroyed the markets for its goods in southern Europe and will be in crisis itself in a decade. The Chinese and other tiger economies will be laughing all the way to their highly profitable banks.

JKP: I asked earlier about the future of the Mavros series. But what of novelist Matt Wells? You left him behind in 2011’s The Nameless Dead. Will he be resurrected sometime in your fiction?

PJ: Wells was always the wild card in my “oeuvre.” The first two books were very successful, but then the publisher stopped promoting them, so the best one--Maps of Hell, which is set in the U.S.--withered on the vine. The conceit of turning a mild crime writer into a freelance Black Ops specialist appealed to my self-mocking side. Never say never. Quint and Mavros both came back from the realm of Hades, and so might Matt.

JKP: Are there other books you’re working on that have nothing to do with any of these three series?

PJ: Last year Carnal Acts, a quasi-police procedural that I wrote under the pseudonym Sam Alexander, was published by Arcadia Books. I say quasi, because I was really taking the tropes of the subgenre and of my own writing past and playing with them as much as I could. The hero is a female, mixed-race cop who moves from London to northeast England, where she joins a police force that I invented in a town that I invented. I like cop movies and TV series--well, the offbeat ones--but I have absolutely no interest in obsessing on procedural issues. Joni Pax isn’t a drinker or one-night-stand type, though she does have issues. The book is really about people-trafficking and an Albanian sex slave, Suzana, who kills a pimp and escapes. I link this to the landed gentry, whose families made a fortune from the 18th-century slave trade. Big themes, as usual … At least the novel and the lengthy critique I wrote about it got me a Ph.D. in creative writing. “Always look for something different to do” is another of my mottoes. I’ve started yet another series, but I can’t talk about it yet, sorry.

JKP: Will that new series also be by “Sam Alexander”?

PJ: No, but it will be under another nom de plume, decided upon but as yet still secret.

JKP: Your father happens to be Ronald Johnston, the author of such popular thrillers as The Black Camels of Qashran, Paradise Smith, and Sea Story. Is he still with us, and how influential has he been in shaping your development as a fiction writer?

PJ: No, he died in 2009, aged 82. He was a great help and mentor, always the first reader of my drafts. He was very practical and gave me a lot of useful advice about publishing. He had no time for purple prose and believed firmly in page-turning stories. He would write comments on my printouts. The best I ever got was a single word for The Last Red Death: “Wow!” I treasure that. I’m not sure how much he influenced me. For my sins, I’m much more of an intellectual than he was (he trained and served as a master mariner). But he kept my feet on the ground and extolled the virtues of simple plots, strong characters and convincing settings. Two out of three ain’t bad …

JKP: I also want to inquire about your health. As I understand it, you’ve already survived two different cancers, but are not free of cancer concerns in the future. How is your health now? And how have your cancer scares affected your fiction?

PJ: Thanks for the concern. I’ve now had four different types of cancer, thanks to a malformed gene that makes me more vulnerable. Three of them required major surgery and two needed chemotherapy afterwards. The last was thankfully pretty minor. But the threat is always there. I’ve come to terms with it to some extent--it’s 12 years since the first one so, like Ripley’s alien, cancer seems to have been my companion for a long time. I’m OK now, which is something to drink several glasses to! My view of life has changed completely since pre-cancer. Dark thoughts and impulses prevail. I still don’t know what drove me to write a novel about the fate of the Greek Jews in Auschwitz (Alex Mavros’s sixth case, The Black Life). I still haven’t recovered from opening that Pandora’s Box. I’m on the trail of Hope, who supposedly was hiding under all the ills that flew out, but she’s proving elusive. Still, anyone who thinks crime writing’s easy isn’t taking it seriously enough.

JKP: Finally, I want to ask you a question I have posted to other authors in the past: If you could’ve written any book that doesn’t already carry your byline, what would it have been?

PJ: How long have you got? I know--Aristophanes’ The Birds. Bet no one else gave that answer …

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sink Your Fangs Into This

While writing earlier this week about the sad demise of Jeff Rice--whose then-unpublished horror novel, The Kolchak Papers, spawned the wildly popular 1972 ABC-TV Movie of the Week, The Night Stalker--I started to dig through my file boxes for the 1974 Fall Preview edition of TV Guide. It was in that issue, I knew, that Darren McGavin’s hour-long drama based on the ’72 teleflick (as well as its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler) was introduced. Unfortunately, I was not able to find the magazine--until this afternoon.

The page below comes from TV Guide’s September 7-13, 1974, edition. What we now remember as the short-lived series Kolchak: The Night Stalker is listed here simply as The Night Stalker--the title it carried through its first several episodes. Whoever penned the mag’s preview of McGavin’s Friday chiller had some fun with its concept. “This show is a scream,” he or she wrote. “And a moan and a gasp and a shriek. Not to mention eyes widening in terror, hands clutching throats, bodies slumping to floors, and figures lurking in shadows.” You can read the rest by clicking on this image:

The 1974 fall TV season had its bright spots: Valerie Harper’s Rhoda and James Garner’s The Rockford Files both premiered in September of that year, as did Little House on the Prairie, Police Woman, and David Janssen’s underrated private-eye drama, Harry O. But that fall also welcomed short-timers such as The New Land (“a Swedish Waltons”), The Texas Wheelers (starring Jack Elam and Mark Hamill), and Clint Walker’s Kodiak, which cast the former Cheyenne star as an Alaska State Patrol officer charged with keeping the peace on 50,000 square miles of backwoods. Kolchak: The Night Stalker probably wouldn’t be remembered if it hadn’t become a cult favorite.

READ MORE:Claim That Tune,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Limbo).

Things Will Get Bloody in Stirling

Organizers of this year’s Bloody Scotland convention, to be held in Stirling from September 11 to 13, have announced their shortlist of nominees for the fourth annual Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year award (formerly known as the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year). Those contenders, said to have been “chosen by an independent panel of readers from a longlist of 55 books,” are as follows:

Paths of the Dead, by Lin Anderson (Pan)
DM for Murder, by Matt Bendoris (Contraband)
Dead Girl Walking, by Chris Brookmyre (Little, Brown)
Thin Air, by Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)
The Ghosts of Altona, by Craig Russell (Quercus)
Death Is a Welcome Guest, by Louise Welsh (John Murray)

The winner will be declared during a “gala dinner” to be held on Saturday, September 12, as part of the Bloody Scotland festival program. This year’s prize recipient will receive £1,000 and nationwide promotion in Waterstones bookshops. If you’d like to be on hand in Stirling when the 2015 Bloody Scotland Crime Book of the Year is announced, buy tickets to the awards dinner here.

In the past, this commendation has gone to Peter May’s Entry Island (2014), Malcolm Mackay’s How a Gunman Says Goodbye (2013), and Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country (2012).

Up for Honors Down Under

Sisters in Crime Australia has announced its shortlist of contenders for the 2015 Davitt Awards, which are named in honor of Ellen Davitt (1812-1879), Australia’s first crime novelist. These commendations are supposed to identify the best Aussie crime fiction by women, for both adults and children. The nominees are listed below.

Adult Novel:
Through the Cracks, by Honey Brown (Penguin Australia)
Forbidden Fruits, by Ilsa Evans (Momentum)
A Murder Unmentioned, by Sulari Gentill (Pantera Press)
A Morbid Habit, by Annie Hauxwell (Penguin Australia)
Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty (Pan MacMillan)
Present Darkness, by Malla Nunn (Atria)

Young Adult Novel:
Intruder, by Christine Bongers (Woolshed Press)
The Astrologer’s Daughter, by Rebecca Lim (Text)
Every Word, by Ellie Marney (Allen & Unwin)
The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, by Pamela Rushby (HarperCollins Australia)

Children’s Novel:
The Adventures of Stunt Boy and His Amazing Wonder Dog, Blindfold, by Lollie Barr (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Kitten Kaboodle Mission 1: The Catier Emerald, by Eileen O’Hely (Walker)
Withering-by-Sea, by Judith Rossell (HarperCollins Australia)
Friday Barnes: Big Trouble, by R.A. Spratt (Random House)
Truly Tan 4: Freaked!, by Jen Storer (ABC)

Love You to Death: A Story of Sex, Betrayal and Murder Gone Wrong, by Megan Norris (Five Mile Press)
Last Woman Hanged, by Caroline Overington (HarperCollins Australia)
Have You Seen Simone?: The Story of an Unsolved Murder, by Virginia Peters (Nero)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, by Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)

The Adventures of Stunt Boy and His Amazing Wonder Dog, Blindfold, by Lollie Barr (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Hades, by Candice Fox (Random House)
What Came Before, by Anna George (Penguin Australia)
Gap, by Rebecca Jessen (University of Queensland Press)
Intruder, by Christine Bongers (Woolshed Press)
Have You Seen Simone?: The Story of an Unsolved Murder, by Virginia Peters (Nero)
The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, by Pamela Rushby (HarperCollins Australia)
Tell Me Why, by Sandi Wallace (Clan Destine Press)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, by Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)

In addition, the 650 members of Sisters in Crime Australia will have the opportunity to select a Readers’ Choice winner.

Recipients of all these prizes will be announced on Saturday, August 29, during a ceremony at the Thornbury Theatre in Melbourne.

(Hat tip to Mystery Fanfare.)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

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

Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay (NAL), is the first book in a trilogy built around widowed reporter David Harwood (from 2010’s Never Look Away). Here Harwood lands back in his preternaturally peaceful hometown of Promise Falls, New York, determined to make a fresh start with his 9-year-old son. But things start going wrong immediately. The small newspaper that has just hired Harwood closes its doors shortly thereafter, and he is forced to find lodging again with his aging parents. Then Harwood’s mother asks that he carry some food over to his cousin Marla, who’s not been doing at all well since her miscarriage … only to discover the supposedly childless woman caring for an infant she insists was given to her by an “angel.” Harwood determines to identify the baby’s real mother, only to find her stabbed to death--leaving the reporter with more mysteries and related tragic events than he knows how to handle, at least initially. Blood, Salt, Water (Orion UK) is the fifth entry in Denise Mina’s series about Glasgow Detective Inspector Alex Morrow (following last year’s The Red Road). Morrow and the other members of her team have been tracking a Spanish woman named Roxanna Fuentecilla, who’s suspected of being mixed up in a large drug-smuggling and money-laundering scheme. After Fuentecilla suddenly vanishes and her family turns evasive under questioning, the DI hopes that an odd call from Fuentecilla’s cell phone to a number in a parochial seaside community, Helensburgh, will help crack the case open. However, picturesque Helensburgh has secrets all its own, including those involving a small-time thug with blood on his hands, a corpse in a local lake, and a former scout leader who has returned after many years, supposedly to sort out the affairs of her recently deceased mother--even though the mother actually died long ago.

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

Photographic Evidence Sought

Craig Sisterson, judging convenor for New Zealand’s annual Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel, tells me that the winner of the 2015 prize might be announced as late as early October. Here are the five books shortlisted for that commendation.

In the meantime, Sisterson has put together a “Reading Kiwi Crime” contest that offers readers “the opportunity to win personally autographed copies of this year’s Ngaio Marsh Award finalists.” He explains the simple rules for participating:
[A]ll you need to do is take a picture of yourself reading any New Zealand crime, mystery, or thriller title--from old classics like Ngaio Marsh, Fergus Hume, Elizabeth Messenger, and Laurie Mantell, to the latest from award winners like Paul Cleave, Paul Thomas, and Neil Cross. Then share it with the Award organisers by:

1. Tweeting the pic and tagging @ngaiomarshaward; OR
2. Posting the pic to the Ngaio Marsh Award Facebook page; OR
3. E-mailing the pic to ngaiomarshaward@gmail.com.

If you follow the Award’s Twitter account or like the Facebook page, you’ll get a bonus entry in the draw.

Just to clarify: the book in your photo doesn’t have to be set in New Zealand, just written by an author connected to New Zealand (citizen, resident, grew up here, etc). If you’re scratching your head for choices, here’s a long list of possibilities.
The cutoff date for entering this contest is October 4.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Say Good-bye to Kolchak’s “Father”

Just the other day I was thinking that it had been a long while since I’d last watched the 1972 made-for-television vampire flick, The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin as journalist-turned-monster hunter Carl Kolchak, and that it was probably time for me to revisit that picture, along with its 1973 sequel, The Night Strangler. But now comes news that Jeff Rice, who created the Kolchak character, died on July 1 in Las Vegas, Nevada, at age 71. John L. Smith, a reporter for the Las Vegas Journal-Review reports that Rice had “suffered from severe depression throughout much of his adult life” and adds that, “In an eerie tribute to the mysteries that surrounded his fiction and life in Las Vegas, the cause and manner of death is pending the results of a toxicology test by the Clark County coroner’s office.”

Jeffrey Grant Rice was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1944 but spent part of his childhood in Beverly Hills, California. He was the son of Bob Rice, characterized by Smith as “a mob-associated costume jewelry maker … and early investor” in Vegas’ old Dunes Hotel and Casino. “Through those family’s connections, the son gained access to the neon glitz and subterranean shadow of Las Vegas. He even worked for a time at local newspapers. Some of that experience seeps into the pages of his story just as it surely crept into his consciousness.”

The story of Rice’s connection to McGavin’s original Night Stalker film has been repeated so many times, it’s probably now part legend; it’s certainly a cautionary tale. Here’s one synopsis, cribbed from Mark Dawidziak’s 1997 book, The Night Stalker Companion:
True-life newspaperman (and actor!) Jeff Rice created Carl Kolchak in The Kolchak Papers, a 1970 horror novel which Rice submitted to [screenwriter] Richard Matheson’s agent. Then, in a shocking example of Hollywood sleaze, the agent sold the unpublished novel’s TV movie rights to ABC--without first signing Rice!--trapping Rice in a done deal he’d never agreed to!

Heart-breakingly, Rice had hoped to write the TV script himself, but the agent had already secured the teleplay assignment for Matheson. Dawidziak adds: “It’s important to note that Rice does not in any way blame Matheson for what he views as shady Hollywood dealings.”
“Rice sued the network…,” explains Smith, “and [ABC] gave creative credit on screen to Rice. But that left him well short of Easy Street. By the time all the Hollywood double dealing was resolved, Rice’s novel was published in 1973 after the hugely successful TV movie. A series followed, and Rice also found success with a second novel, The Night Strangler, co-authored with Richard Matheson.”

I don’t remember when it was that I saw The Night Stalker; I was pretty young when that teleflick first aired, so the likelihood is that I caught up with Carl Kolchak--along with his newspaper boss, the irritable Tony Vincenzo (played by Simon Oakland), and his winsome dancer of a girlfriend, Gail Foster (Carol Lynley)--in reruns. However, I was hooked from the beginning, as a blood-sucking vampire started knocking off the otherwise carefree visitors to Vegas’ showy Sunset Strip. When I later discovered there was a second Kolchak adventure, The Night Strangler (which took place in a highly fictionalized Seattle Underground and found McGavin’s seersucker-wearing newsie confronting a Civil War-era doctor who kept himself alive with an elixir featuring blood taken from murdered women), I could hardly wait to watch that, too. And after I read (in this very article, from a 1973 edition of my then-hometown newspaper, the Portland Oregonian) that an ABC-TV series featuring McGavin and Oakland would debut on September 13, 1974, you can bet I cleared my calendar of other commitments. Sadly, I was disappointed at first with Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which moved the action to Chicago, found Kolchak and Vincenzo working for a wire news agency, and came up with some truly cheesy monsters for our tape recorder-carrying hero to combat--everything from an android and a lizard-man to a headless and homicidal motorcycle rider. (Interestingly, that last episode, “Chopper,” was scripted by future Rockford Files writer and Sopranos creator David Chase.) Only in recent years have I come to better appreciate Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1973-1974) for its humor and McGavin’s portrayal of a lonely, rumpled reporter who accepts the world’s horrors--actual, metaphorical, and outright fictional--with more courage and pragmatism than those around him.

Jeff Rice is to be thanked for bringing monsters out from under my bed, putting them on my TV screen, and making me appreciate them as much as I did. I only wish his own life had been a happier one. Although he is said to have found a grateful Internet following in recent years, Smith notes that Rice was also “extremely troubled and increasingly afraid of straying from his home near Desert Inn Road. In leaner times, Rice had rented a room from [his ‘close friend’ Bobbie] Carson and on occasion slept on her couch. She helped him through emotional and mental crises. He cared for her after the 78-year-old fell and broke her hip. The two met 14 years ago. In keeping with the local working-class subculture, they had a loan shark in common and struck up what became an enduring friendship.”

There are apparently no memorial services planned for Carl Kolchak’s creator. Yet you never know--maybe some vampires, werewolves, headless motorcyclists, and other ghouls will shed a tear to know that someone who might have been able to tell their stories, too, has disappeared from this world.

* * *

At least for now, 1972’s The Night Stalker--based on Jeff Rice’s book--is available for viewing on YouTube. Watch it all here.

READ MORE: It Couldn’t Happen Here: An Episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker a Day As Seen Through the Eyes of Peter Enfantino and John Scoleri.

Keeping Track

• We’ve written before on this page about Undershaw, Arthur Conan Doyle’s once-endangered former home in Hindhead, England (see here and here), including bringing you the news that the once-stately residence, where Conan Doyle produced 13 Sherlock Holmes adventures, had been saved from redevelopment. Now comes word of a plan to raise money for Undershaw’s renovation as a school for children with learning disabilities. “Sixty of the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes authors have come together to create the largest ever anthology of new stories about the Baker Street detective. …,” reports Radio Times. “All the royalties from the anthology, which will span three hardback volumes and cover 1,200 pages, will go towards the new owners of the building, Stepping Stones--a small specialist education provision--who are restoring [Undershaw] back to its former glory, including the restoration of Conan Doyle’s study. One of the pledges from Stepping Stones [managers] to their Sherlockian supporters is that outside term time they will be making the house accessible to fans as much as possible; allowing them to visit the study and look out the very windows Conan Doyle did when he wrote stories such as The Hound of the Baskervilles.” Britain’s MX Publishing is scheduled to release all three of these new Holmes and Dr. John Watson collections, edited by David Marcum, on October 1. Learn more about them here: Volume 1, Volume II, and Volume III.

The Gumshoe Site brings the unwelcome news that Gerald A. Browne, a former fashion photographer and the author of such thrillers as 11 Harrowhouse (1972), Green Ice (1978), and 19 Purchase Street (1982), “died on July 24 at his home in Oceanside, California.” Born in Connecticut in 1924, Browne was 90 years old. Click here to read a story People magazine did about him in 1986, shortly after the publication of his novel Stone 588.

• OK, let’s have a quick show of hands. Who remembers the 1987-1989 ABC-TV comedy-drama Hooperman, starring John Ritter (formerly of Three’s Company) as San Francisco plainclothes police detective Harry Hooperman? That program (which I wrote about in this wrap-up about Bay Area crime series) was created by Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher, and I remember it as being a lot of fun, partly because it featured nice romantic tension between Ritter and the lovely Debrah Farentino, who played the manager of a decrepit apartment building Hooperman had inherited. Sadly, the two-season Hooperman still hasn’t received a DVD release, but somebody signing him- or herself “JackTripper491” has begun posting episodes on YouTube. Twelve are up already, with (I hope) more to come.

• Another YouTube find: This is the 1976 TV movie adaptation of Dorothy Uhnak’s 1973 novel, Law and Order, about three generations of a family in the New York City Police Department. It stars Darren McGavin, Keir Dullea, Suzanne Pleshette, and Robert Reed.

• I’m a regular follower of Television Obscurities, which focuses on forgotten or at least insufficiently acclaimed small-screen programming of the past. That blog marked its 12th anniversary last month, and as part the celebration its author, who signs himself only as “Robert,” has started “writing about my 12 favorite obscurities from each decade.” This month’s selection includes Mr. Lucky, a 1965-1966 CBS adventure-drama created by Blake Edwards (of Peter Gunn fame) and starring John Vivyan and Ross Martin (this was before Martin co-starred in The Wild Wild West). I’m not all that familiar with Mr. Lucky, having watched only a few episodes, but Robert knows more, as evidenced by this fine backgrounder on the series. To watch some of the show for yourself, check out MatineeClassics’ YouTube page.

• In Artistic License Renewed, Julian Parrott considers “The Peculiar Parallels of Ian Fleming and Raymond Chandler.” He concludes:
Fleming and Chandler were kindred spirits. They were bonded by shared experiences, values, and sensibilities. But what really linked the two men, who only really knew each personally for three years was, was the common belief that their novels, although commercially successful, were simply not taken seriously. Each saw in the other a fellow craftsman someone worthy of the respect of authors and literati alike. Fleming and Chandler both believed that Marlowe and Bond should transcend the limitations of their respective genres.

Although their novels never attained the plaudits they felt they deserved in their home countries both men have left indelible stamps on global culture.
• Author Gary M. Dobbs is in the midst of a project I’ve long thought to tackle: a re-reading of the four novels in Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” saga, in chronological order of their evolving story, rather than in the order those books were published. This month Dobbs enjoyed Dead Man’s Walk (1995) and Comanche Moon, McMurtry’s prequels; he’ll soon be moving on to the classic Lonesome Dove (1985) and its sequel, Streets of Laredo (1993).

• The Monkees always remind me of my childhood. So I was interested to look through Comfort TV’s list of “The 20 Best Monkees Songs--and the 5 Worst.” I don’t have any arguments with blogger David Hofstede’s choices, but his post does remind me that there are a lot of songs by that TV-born rock group that I have forgotten over the years. “Gonna Buy Me a Dog”? “P.O. Box 9847”? (I’ve posted thoughts about the Monkees before, which you can find here.)

• Welcome to a new literary blog, The Seattle Review of Books.

• It had slipped my mind that FOX-TV will broadcast a six-episode revival of The X Files, beginning in January 2016, complete with David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and--by some strange alchemy--the Lone Gunmen. But this super-brief teaser makes clear that the “event series” is actually going to happen.

• UK critic Jake Kerridge offers this short but winning profile of Swedish author Maj Sjöwall in The Telegraph. Sjöwall, of course, was the co-author with her journalist husband, Per Wahlöö, of the highly influential 10-book Martin Beck series of detective novels (Roseanna, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, etc.). Kerridge mentions that a documentary film of Wahlöö’s life is currently being made, with hopes of it being “ready for Sjöwall’s 80th birthday in September.”

• Last month, film and television historian Stephen Bowie wrote an excellent piece for A.V. Club about The Senator, Hal Holbrook’s 1970-1971 political drama shown as part of the “wheel series” The Bold Ones. (The Senator was recently released in a DVD set by Shout! Factory.) Now he follows that up with this post in his Classic TV History Blog, using much of the material he didn’t have room for in his previous piece. “I’ve compiled it here in the form of an oral history,” Bowie explains. “It covers the standalone pilot film, A Clear and Present Danger; the development of the series; and then the individual episodes, at least half of which are little masterpieces from a period when quality television drama was scarce.”

• I am sorry to hear that Ann Rule, the Seattle-area resident who became famous writing true-crime books, has died at age 83. This follows allegations that she had been “bilked out of more than $100,000 by two of her sons, one of whom demanded money while she ‘cowered in her wheelchair.’” Seattle’s KING-TV quotes Rule’s daughter as saying that “her mother had gone to the emergency room last week and had a heart attack while she was there. She says her mother passed away a few days later.” Rule was probably best known for having penned The Stranger Beside Me (1980) about serial killer Ted Bundy. I had occasion to meet and talk at some length with her in the late 1980s, when I was an editor of Washington Magazine. I assigned her at least two pieces for the mag, including an essay about how multiple murderers like Bundy and the Green River Killer represented the dark side of America’s pleasant Pacific Northwest. Rule could be blunt and abrasive at times, hungry for approval at others, but she definitely knew her stuff when it came to the subject of real-life criminals. She was a Seattle fixture, and anyone who knew her will surely raise a glass in her memory tonight. UPDATE: The Seattle Times published a Rule obituary here.

• A brand-new episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show? How can that possibly be? Well, TV writer Ken Levine (M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, etc.) recently decided it would be a fun experiment to put together an installment of the 1961-1965 CBS-TV sitcom for his popular blog. Here’s are the results: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Did you know there was Jack Reacher fan fiction?

• Finally, here are several author interviews worth your tracking down: Gary Phillips has a good talk with CrimeFiction.FM’s Stephen Campbell about Day of the Destroyers (Moonstone), the pulpish new anthology he edited featuring stories linked by a real-life 1930s conspiracy (the so-called Business Plot) designed to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Wallace Stroby discusses his latest Crissa Stone thriller, The Devil’s Share (Minotaur), with podcaster Paul Brubaker from The Backgrounder; Sara Paretsky chats with Jordan Foster of The Life Sentence “about her role as [Mystery Writers of America] president, what she’d like to achieve during her tenure, and how the crime fiction genre can address challenging issues confronting it; and Crime Fiction Lover has a conversation with Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason about his new-in-the-UK novel, Oblivion (which will be published next February in the States as Into Oblivion).

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bullet Points: Donald Trump-less Edition

• Why does it not surprise me to learn that the film rights to Don Winslow’s latest thriller, The Cartel (Knopf), have already been sold to Fox, with Ridley Scott tapped to direct and Leonardo DiCaprio being courted to play DEA agent Art Keller?

• Meanwhile, Winslow seems to have won no end of favorable publicity for this still-new sequel to his 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog. Slate has a podcast interview with The Cartel’s author, while Cinephilia & Beyond has posted this appreciation of Winslow’s storytelling. Reviews of The Cartel appear in Crime Fiction Lover and The Big Issue, as well as on the Mystery People site and even in High Times, not to mention a gazillion other sources.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz’s fourth installment in the Millennium thriller series (originally penned by Stieg Larsson)--due out on August 27 in Great Britain, and on September 1 in the States--has been heavily embargoed. However, publisher MacLehose Press has finally released some details about its plot. The Guardian reports:
The novel continues the story of [Lisbeth] Salander and [Mikael] Blomkvist, last seen at the ending of Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, published in Swedish in 2007 and in English in 2009.

Despite the ending of Larsson’s novel, the misfit hacker Salander and the crusading journalist Blomkvist “have not been in touch for some time”, revealed MacLehose Press. The novel opens as “renowned Swedish scientist Professor Balder” contacts Blomkvist, asking him to publish his story.

And “it is a terrifying one,” said the publisher. “Säpo, Sweden’s security police, have offered him protection, but what Balder hopes for is to preserve his life’s work”--he has made “world-leading advances in artificial intelligence”--by going public.

Balder has also been working with Salander, it then emerges. The hacker has been using her old codename of Wasp, and has been attempting to crack the NSA--“a lunacy driven by vengeance, and fraught with every possible consequence”, said MacLehose.

She is also being targeted by “ruthless cyber gangsters who call themselves the Spiders”, and “the violent unscrupulousness of this criminal conspiracy will very soon bring terror to the snowbound streets of Stockholm, to the Millennium team--and to Blomkvist and Salander themselves”.
• This is a historical curiosity: an alternative opening to Season 6 of The Avengers, which that year (the series’ last, 1968-1969) replaced Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel) with Linda Thorson (as Tara King).

• Last weekend brought an end to the 2015 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, but the blogger who styles herself “Crime Thriller Girl” has only now concluded her recapping of festival events. See Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here.

• Earlier today, in the Killer Covers blog, I posted the latest entry in my “Friday Finds” series, highlighting book fronts of which I’m especially fond. The star this week is Jonathan Craig’s Frenzy, a 1962 edition of his novel Junkie!

• While you’re on the Killer Covers page, check out this “Two-fer Tuesdays” installment about paperback novels “that feature women in danger, concealed behind the flimsiest of drapes or screens.”

• With just over four months yet to go before the release of Spectre, the 24th James Bond motion picture, we’ve now been given a fairly dramatic, 2.32-minute trailer hinting at what to expect not only from star Daniel Craig, but also from new “Bond Girl” Léa Seydoux and the flick’s villain, played by Christoph Waltz. Watch below.


• The Archive of American Television has recently posted a slew of interviews on its Emmy TV Legends YouTube page with actors, writers, and producers who are familiar to followers of small-screen series. Among the offerings is this multi-part exchange with Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on the 1965-1970 spy satire, Get Smart.

• It seems unclear when, where, and even if, we’ll ever see Cleo Valente’s noirish TV series, The Port of San Pedro (there’s currently a GoFundMe campaign trying to raise money so this project can proceed). Yet a trailer is now circulating; and while its dialogue seems a bit stilted, the clips it offers suggest the program--set in the Los Angeles community of San Pedro--might offer good entertainment for crime-fiction enthusiasts. Criminal Element has posted the trailer here, along with this précis of the program:
The Port of San Pedro is a clear homage to the glory days of noir, from its black-and-white stylization to the schemings of the duplicitous femme fatale, Luli-May Tang. Throw in Nick de Salvo (Steve Polites), an undercover detective who’s teamed up with his corruptible police captain, Sebastian Montenero (Luke Fattorusso), and you’ve got yourself a classic tale that knows where its roots first grew.

The series’ synopsis informs us that Luli-May Tang (Melodie Shih) is a Chinese woman who’s running an illegal currency forgery operation in Macao and has started to look into new ventures at the port of San Pedro. Luli-May is assisted by Mike Moretti (Mark Mikita), a mute sociopath who serves as her bodyguard. For Nick and Sebastian, their progress is impeded by Augustine “Quint” Quintero (Jesus Guevara), a morally ambiguous man who’s attracted equally to both new opportunities and the deadly femme fatale.
• Speaking of trailers, Jedidiah Ayres has posted a bunch of new ones in his blog, Hardboiled Wonderland, including a teaser for the sophomore season of FX-TV’s Fargo. That comedic crime drama is scheduled to return this coming October.

• Sometimes I wonder if Americans will ever take action against gun violence--action that isn’t simply the National Rifle Association prescription of arming still more people. Blogger Steve Benen notes that “As of yesterday, there have been 204 days so far this year. There have also been 203 mass shooting events so far this year.”

• The Web site Mental Floss presents15 Mysterious Facts About The Hardy Boys, the first of which is this remarkable statistic: “Not including graphic novels and planned releases, there have been well over 450 Hardy Boys titles published since their 1927 debut. This rough sum includes 38 titles from the original series that were entirely rewritten after 1959, releases by Grossett & Dunlap and digests from Simon & Schuster publishers, and the spin-offs Clues Brothers, Undercover Brothers, Casefiles, Super Mysteries, and Adventures series, among others.”

• This comes from In Reference to Murder:
BBC One is partnering with Lifetime for a miniseries based on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The UK will premiere the program as a three-episode series later this year to coincide with Agatha Christie’s 125th anniversary, with the U.S. premiere on Lifetime as a two-part miniseries in 2016. The iconic novel follows ten strangers with dubious pasts lured to an isolated island where they're accused of crimes and start to die mysteriously, one by one.
• When asked to list his "Top 10 Books About Spies” for The Guardian, Stephen Grey, author of The New Spymasters: Inside the Modern World of Espionage, included The Riddle of the Sands, by Erskine Childers, and Agents of Innocence, by David Ignatius.

• Poet-novelist Carlos Zanón, whose nihilistic tale, The Barcelona Brothers, was released in an English translation back in 2012, has won Spain’s Premio Dashiell Hammett award for Yo fui Johnny Thunders (2014). The Premio Dashiell Hammett is supposed to showcase the best crime fiction published in Spanish.

• Ralph Dibny? Dirk Gently? Really, are they two of “The 12 Greatest Fictional Detectives (Who Aren’t Sherlock Holmes)”?

• I, for one, had never heard “Sax Rohmer,” whose real name was Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward, and who created the extensive Fu-Manchu series, speak--until today. “Among the goodies just uploaded to YouTube by British Movietone,” explains writer-editor Elizabeth Foxwell, is this undated footage of Rohmer “talking about the levels of U.S. versus British crime.”

• And my Kiwi pal Craig Sisterson, author the newly retitled blog Craig’s Crime Watch (formerly just Crime Watch), has posted the first half of a list of 10 New Zealand fictionists he cheekily suggests “should be locked to their desks until they deliver us another crime novel.” Among his choices so far are Vanda Symon, Alix Bosco (Greg McGee), and Stella Duffy. Part II of his roster is due next week.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Pierce’s Picks

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

Set in October 1943, Clandestine, by J. Robert Janes (Mysterious Press/Open Road), dispatches the unlikely investigative duo of Chief Inspector Jean-Louis St-Cyr of the French Sûreté and Detektiv Inspektor Hermann Kohler of the Nazi Gestapo to a crumbling, ancient Cistercian abbey in northern France, where a bank delivery van has been hijacked. The vehicle’s two male occupants are found shot some distance away, while the stacks of cash and black-market foodstuffs that were being transported have been ransacked--but only a suspiciously small quantity of each is missing. Equally bewildering is the discovery of a woman’s high-heeled shoes on the scene. Who was their wearer, why was she in the van, and where has she gone? An excellent entry in Janes’ long-running series, taking place at a time when the defeat of Adolf Hitler’s war forces appears inevitable. Believe No One, by A.D. Garrett (Minotaur)--the sequel to Everyone Lies (2014)--finds British Detective Chief Inspector Kate Simms on sabbatical in St. Louis, Missouri, where she’s to share knowledge with the local cops and enjoy some necessary distance from Scottish forensics authority Nick Fennimore. But Fennimore, on a concurrent U.S. speaking tour, winds up rejoining Simms to pursue a serial slayer who has been murdering young mothers along the Midwest’s Interstate 44, and abducting their children. For Fennimore this case has a personal connection: his wife was killed five years ago in a similarly grisly fashion, and his daughter taken.

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

Gates of Gotham

A month after crime novelist Robert Terrall died in April 2009 at age 94, I posted a substantial feature about him in The Rap Sheet. At the time, I’d read considerably more about Terrall than I had read of his actual fiction. Since then, however, I have managed to collect all five of the novels he wrote (under the pseudonym Robert Kyle) about New York City private eye Ben Gates. It was just recently, in fact, that I finally tracked down a first-edition copy of Model for Murder, Terrall/Kyle’s third Gates outing, which featured the Robert McGinnis artwork I showcased recently in my Killer Covers blog.

After enjoying Model for Murder, I decided the prolific Terrall needed a bit more attention, since most of today’s younger readers aren’t familiar with his work. So I have devoted my brand-new Kirkus Reviews column to the creator of Ben Gates.

I know there are readers who don’t like the two dozen Michael Shayne novels Terrall ghost-wrote (starting with 1958’s Fit to Kill and continuing through 1976’s Win Some, Lose Some) after the creator of that redheaded Miami shamus, Brett Halliday (aka Davis Dresser), was clobbered by writer’s block. (The change in storytelling style might have had something to do with the fact that Terrall thought “the character of Shayne had no redeeming characteristics,” according to his son). But let’s put that argument aside for the moment, and concentrate on the Ben Gates novels, which--as I remark in my Kirkus column--“boast intricate plots made easier to digest by the gumshoe’s sardonic humor, as well as by the author’s taste for quirky but credible supporting players and his linear, first-person storytelling style.” I think they’re well worth tracking down in used-book stores or online. So does novelist Ed Gorman, who once called Terrall a “really fine craftsman” who was “especially good with dialogue,” and whose “sex scenes are really sexy and they’re good clean fun as well.”

You can read my latest Kirkus column here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Garner Gone, Not to Be Forgotten

It was a year ago today that actor James Garner, who starred in the TV series Maverick and The Rockford Files, and also played Raymond Chandler's best-known private investigator in the 1969 film Marlowe, died of a heart attack at age 86. As a small tribute, here are links to four pieces I wrote about Garner for The Rap Sheet. Enjoy!

A Legend at His Best” (July 20, 2014)
Reflecting on Garner’s Life and Career” (July 21, 2014)
Grilling Garner” (October 28, 2011)
Happy Birthday, Jimbo” (April 7, 2007)

(Hat tip to Jim Suva’s Blog.)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Story Behind the Story:
“Deep North,” by Barry Knister

(Editor’s note: This 58th installment in our “Story Behind the Story” series introduces to The Rap Sheet Barry Knister, who spent a career in the classroom at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, before retiring in 2008 to pen fiction. His first novel, a gritty thriller about Vietnam vets titled The Dating Service [1987], was published by Berkley. His second novel, Just Bill [2008], was an eccentric departure, a fable for adults about dogs and owners living on a Florida golf course. Knister’s third novel, The Anything Goes Girl [Blue Harvest, 2013], was the opening entry in his Brenda Contay suspense series. Below he writes about his new, second Contay novel, Deep North, which is due out next week in both print and e-book versions.)

Big, not to say daunting challenges confront everyone these days who aspires to write crime fiction. The number of titles being released is in itself enough to make a writer change his mind in favor of opening a cheese shop.

But that’s not the principal hurdle I faced when I first got the idea for writing Deep North (Blue Harvest), a suspense novel set in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters.

The first challenge was the standard of excellence already in place. Do you admire Michael Connelly’s detective Harry Bosch? For anyone reading The Rap Sheet, that’s a rhetorical question, one to which the answer is already known. The same holds true for asking whether readers admire Patricia Cornwell’s medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta, Sue Grafton’s P.I., Kinsey Millhone, Elmore Leonard’s federal marshal, Raylan Givens, Scott Turow’s lawyers and prosecutors, or Thomas Harris’ psychological profilers.

Part of our respect and admiration for these characters has to do with the writing skill of the authors, but part is also related to expertise. Each author knows a great deal about one or more aspects of the world of crime, and equips his or her characters with that knowledge. We are placed alongside authentic police, legal experts, and forensic scientists, watching them do their stuff.

But that’s not how real life works. Average persons--civilians--experience most crime as a bolt from the blue, a shocking, sudden intrusion of violence or discovery that stabs into the predictability of daily life, leaving the victim or witness stunned.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, family violence accounted for something like 11 percent of all reported and unreported violent crimes committed between 1998 and 2002. Of the 3,500,000 such crimes carried out against family members, 49 percent were committed against spouses, 11 percent against sons or daughters “victimized by a parent,” etc. Most tellingly, 22 percent of homicides committed in 2002 were “family murders.”

These numbers and what they represent point to a rich vein of do-it-yourself criminals. They offer the writer of crime fiction an abundance of possibilities. At least they do me.

Add to this that I’m in no position to compete with crime-fighter expertise: I’m a former college English teacher. I can write reasonably well, and I enjoy reading and writing crime fiction. But I am not able or willing to “go to school” to train myself in arts and techniques that have been mastered by so many writers before me, and that avid crime-fiction readers are fully versed in.

However, I can imagine stunning moments, and how my fictional characters might react to them.

My solution has been to start from the point of view of the civilian. For the central character in Deep North and the series of suspense novels it belongs to, I feature Brenda Contay, a tabloid “live action” TV reporter turned freelance journalist who keeps finding herself in dicey situations. Those situations involve financial and political crimes, and always murders.

But Contay, a resident of the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, is seeing what happens from the point of view of an outsider (and usually not even as a reporter), rather than as a crime fighter. Neither is she an amateur sleuth. In each instance, her encounter with crime is a matter of happenstance, the way it is for ordinary people who find themselves involved in or witnessing criminal acts.

By taking this approach, I free myself--and my main character--from the burdensome history of expertise and specialized knowledge that so many excellent writers have developed and refined for decades.

The approach is also well-suited in another way to Deep North. This story finds Brenda Contay going fishing with three other women, on a trip won in a raffle--but none of them knows anything about fishing. Brenda and her friends will need to rely on someone who does know, and this clears the way for lots of possibilities.

(Guess what teacher-turned-author goes fishing for just one week a year, in the Boundary Waters, said person relying on actual fishermen to keep him from falling out of the boat?)

Here’s something else that many writers can do far better than I can: devise plots that lead the reader through a labyrinth of twists and turns, plots that leave the actual agent of crime in doubt to the very end of the book.

(Right) Author Barry Knister

I am talking mostly about mysteries, whodunits. The trouble is, I don’t read very many such novels. I respect the ingenuity and craft of mystery writing, but the genre appeals most strongly to people who love puzzles. My wife tells me I’m insecure, that I shy away from mysteries because I don’t like being unable to figure out whodunit before the end. She’s smart, loves mysteries herself, and is very good at crossword puzzles, so she would say that. My younger stepdaughter--also a mystery reader--is relentless when it comes to jigsaw puzzles. I don’t like those either. They frustrate me. About halfway through a rainy-day jigsaw puzzle, I find myself saying, “Who cares about these damn pieces anyway?”

That may be why I’m drawn to suspense stories in which the criminal or criminals are known to the reader well before the end (but not to the hero), stories that place the protagonist and criminal on trajectories aimed at each other.

In fact, with one exception in my suspense series, those who commit crimes will not be professional criminals. They will be other civilians. Bitter or obsessed in some way, or arrogantly convinced that their intellectual superiority places them above the law, they, too--like my freelance journalist--will be amateurs.

So, the basic story dynamic in my suspense series is different. My effort to suspend the reader in a state of pleasurable anxiousness shifts from guiding her to watch and listen for clues, to watching the central character as she operates in ignorance of what’s coming.

In such stories, the reader is no longer in a squad car, or a medical examiner’s lab, or in a courtroom waiting to learn the truth about a crime. Instead, tension is generated by watching a sympathetic character as she moves ever closer to a fatal encounter.

How will she react? What will happen to her understanding of others after that encounter? How will the disaster alter the importance with which she has invested friends and enemies? Can she salvage something positive from a terrible experience? If so, at what cost?

In such stories, the Big Bang--the climax--is not the end of the novel, and the denouement takes on more importance: the reader needs to know what the aftermath will bring.

To succeed in bringing off this alternative approach to generating suspense in Deep North, I have to make the characters--all of them, not just the central point-of-view character and the “bad guy”--matter to the reader.

Yes, characters matter in any good novel, but in some sense their importance is diminished by the level of engagement the reader feels with the plot. It’s a delicate balance: plot and structure are of central importance to all well-written novels. But for me as a writer, figuring out how to keep structure strong, while at the same time expanding the meaning and value of characters, is the challenge.

In other words, two trains have to stay firmly on the track, but those riding inside them must be important enough to the reader to make him or her stick around for the whole ride. Not to find out whodunit, but to learn what happens when two trains headed for each other collide. Who will still be alive, and what will they do next?