Wednesday, July 28, 2004

New Reviews on Mystery Ink

A handful of new reviews went up on Mystery Ink today:

Linwood Barclay – Bad Move  Reviewed by Yvette Banek
Jeffery Deaver – Garden of Beasts  Reviewed by Fiona Walker
Joyce Krieg – Slip Cue  Reviwed by Bob Walch
Kathy Reichs – Monday Mourning  Reviewed by Fiona Walker
Laura Lippman – By a Spider's Thread  Reviewed by David Montgomery

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

20 Second Book Reviews™

Jason Starr - Twisted City (Vintage Crime, $12)
A simple turn of events -- a guy gets his wallet stolen in a bar -- leads David Miller on a hellride through the darker side of Manhattan that finds him dealing with a maniacal girlfriend, a crack-addicted hooker and the hooker’s dead boyfriend.  Jason Starr is the modern equivalent of Jim Thompson or Charles Willeford, a master of dark, twisted noir. This one isn’t as good as his last, but it’s still damn good.

Terrill Lee Lankford - Shooters (Tor, OOP)
Nick Gardner is a fashion photographer with a hidden past.  Living the high life in Malibu, he takes a model home one night and finds her dead in the morning.  The police, naturally, believe that he did it.  Short and sweet, Shooters is a fast and furious ride through a not-so glitzy L.A.  Lankford is a very talented, underrated writer.

Robert Ward The Cactus Garden (Pocket, OOP)
Acclaimed novelist Ward (Red Baker) tries his hand at an action-packed thriller, producing the same kind of gritty, darkly comic thrills that he did while writing for such television shows as Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice.  The story follows DEA agent Jack Walker on the trail of his biggest bust ever, a journey that takes him from L.A. to Mexico and back.  With juicy characters, snappy dialogue and a deliciously convoluted plot, The Cactus Garden is pure entertainment. 

Dylan Schaffer Misdemeanor Man (Bloomsbury, $23.95)
Gordon Seegerman is an apathetic public defender whose niche is defending people accused of, you guessed it, misdemeanors.  What he really cares about, though, is his role as the lead singer of a Barry Manilow tribute band.  He’s caught up in a case that requires all his abilities when a nebbish of an accountant gets arrested for wagging his willie in a department store.  Schaffer writes with a sly wit and a wonderful gift for characters.  This is one of the year’s best debuts!

Monday, July 26, 2004

It’s showtime, Boston!

Crime novelist Dennis Lehane has an op-ed piece on his hometown of Boston in today's Globe.

Speaking of Lehane...I saw Clint Eastwood's film version of Mystic River a couple weeks back. Well-directed, as you'd expect from an Eastwood project, and very well acted. The cast is probably the best thing about the movie, with Sean Penn and Tim Robbins giving powerful performances.

The plot still suffers from the same problems as it did in the book -- namely a fairly small, under-developed story and unsympathetic characters -- but good filmmaking and acting can over that, as it has here.

I don't recommend the novel, but the film is definitely worth watching.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Anthony Award Nominations

The Anthony Award nominations were released this morning. (These are the awards given out at Boucheron, the world mystery convention.)

All in all, a very strong lineup.

Best Novel
Blood is the Sky by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin's Minotaur)
The Delicate Storm by Giles Blunt (Random House)
Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman (Harper Collins)
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow )
The Summer That Never Was/Close to Home by Peter Robinson (McClelland and Stewart)

Best First Novel
Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (Soho Press )
Haunted Ground by Erin Hart (Simon and Schuster)
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)
Monkeewrench/Want to Play? by P.J. Tracy (Putnam)
Wiley's Lament by Lono Waiwaiole (St. Martin's Press)

Best Paperback Original
Deadly Legacy by Robin Burcell (Avon)
Dealing In Murder by Elaine Flinn (Avon)
Find Me Again by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Dundurn Press)
Thicker Than Water by P.J. Parrish (Pinnacle Press)
Tough Luck by Jason Starr (Vintage/Black Liz)

Best Short Story
Doppelganger by Rhys Bowen (in Blood On Their Hands, Berkley Prime Crime)
The Grass is Always Greener by Sandy Balzo (in EQMM, Mar 2003)
Munchies by Jack Bludis (in Hardbroiled, Wild Side Press)
Red Meat by Elaine Viets (in Blood On Their Hands, Berkley Prime Crime)
Wanda Wilcox Is Trapped by Eddie Muller (in Plots With Guns, Sept/Oct 2003)

Best Young Adult Mystery
Artemis Fowl - The Eternity Code by Eoin Colfer (Viking Children's Books)
Feast Of Fools by Bridget Crowley (Hodder Children's Books)
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (Bloomsbury)
No Escape by Norah McClintock (Scolastic)
Seventh Knot by Kathleen Karr (Marshall Cavendish)

Best Historical Mystery
Find Me Again by Sylvia Maultash Warsh (Dundurn Press)
For the Love of Mike by Rhys Bowen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
Let Loose The Dogs by Maureen Jennings(St. Martin's Minotaur)
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Press)
The Bridge of Sighs by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin's Minotaur)

Best Critical/Non-Fiction Work
Beautiful Shadow by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury)
Interrogations by Jon Jordan (Mystery One Books)
Make Mine A Mystery by Gary Warren Niebuhr (Libraries Unlimited)
Mystery Women: An Encyclopedia of Leading Women Characters In Mystery Fiction, Vol III by Colleen Barnett (Poisoned Pen Press)
The Story of Jane Doe: A Book About Rape by Jane Doe (Random House)

Best Fan Publications
Deadly Pleasures by editor: George Easter
The Drood Review by editor: Jim Huang
Mystery News by editors: Lynn Kaczmarek & Chris Aldrich
Mystery Readers Journal by editor: Janet A. Rudolph
Mystery Scene Magazine by editor: Kate Stine

"Named for the late, great New York Times mystery genre critic, Anthony Boucher, the Anthonys are selected by the readers themselves. Nominees were selected from among works published for the first time in 2003. At Bouchercon2004, the final voting and presentation of the awards will take place."

Friday, July 23, 2004

Python Rules!

What is the most influential British TV show of all time? According to a "panel of experts" it's Monty Python! Included amongst such shows as Pop Idol, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and Steptoe and Son (the basis for the popular American show Sanford and Son), Monty Python was the show that most "changed the face of television."

I know this has nothing to do with crime fiction...I just always loved Monty Python. Even after 30 years, the troupe's work is still fresh, funny and wildly inventive. Their irreverence, spontaneity and boundary-pushing humor had a significant impact on the direction of comedy over the past 3 decades.

Mark Billingham on Crime Fiction

Today over at The Independent, there is a thoroughly interesting article by Mark Billingham on the evolution of the series detective, as he traces the path from Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus, and the relatively shorter one from Marlowe to his modern American counterparts.

The Bourne Supremacy

The new Jason Bourne film, again starring Matt Damon, hits theatres today. It's nominally based on the book by Robert Ludlum that shares the same title, but apparently little else.

The fact that screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Paul Greengrass have completely rewritten the story doesn't bother me. The same was true of the previous Bourne film with Damon (based on the first book in the series, The Bourne Identity) and I enjoyed that one quite a bit.

What the filmmakers have decided is that it is the character of Jason Bourne, a less-sexed, pumped-up, Americanized James Bond, that is the real interest here, not so much the plots of the books. That's a savvy decision on their part.

Without a doubt, Bourne makes for a fascinating thriller hero: smart, tough, resourceful, lethal as Typhoid Mary, and possessing more lives than a cat. It's no wonder that he was recently brought back in book form as well.

Given that the first book was written 25 years ago, the story would require substantial revision in any case just to make it current. Extracting the character from Ludlum's original stories and placing him into new environs is a wise decision.

I haven't seen the new film yet, but Roger Ebert, my colleague at the Sun-Times, gives it 3 stars, saying that the filmmakers "elevate the movie above its genre" with "skillful" action and suspense. Stephen Holden at the New York Times likewise praises it, describing it as "high-speed action realism carried off with the dexterity of a magician pulling a hundred rabbits out of a hat in one graceful gesture."

Granted, I'll probably wait to watch it on DVD, but I'm already looking forward to it.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

20 Second Book Reviews™

A new and hopefully recurring feature here at the Crime Fiction Dossier: 20 Second Book Reviews™, specially desgined for the hyper-busy, easily-bored and short attention-spanned!

Walter Mosley - Little Scarlet (Little, Brown, $24.95): The 8th Easy Rawlins novel finds the amateur detective in the tense, confused days following the Watts riots of 1965. Easy is tasked by the LAPD to investigate the murder of a young black woman, supposedly at the hands of a white man. Although Mosley's writing is as good as ever, for the first time in the series it feels like he's trying to push a message, rather than just tell a good story.

Michael Simon - Dirty Sally (Viking, $23.95): An interesting noir debut with an excess of style that eventually grows tiresome. The characters aren't much fun to read about and the crimes (involving drugs and dead prostitutes) grow repetitive. Simon is trying to write in the James Ellroy mold, it seems, which is tough even for Ellroy himself to pull off at times. This writer shows promise, but Dirty Sally ultimately falls short.

Keith Ablow - Murder Suicide (St. Martin's Press, $21.95): This is the fifth in a series featuring forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger, although the first I've read. Clevenger is an excellent character and the plot, about a brilliant inventor who commits suicide hours before experimental brain surgery, is likewise well-crafted. Although the story isn't particularly suspenseful, it still works as an interesting procedural.

Simon Kernick - The Murder Exchange (St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95): An ex-mercenary squares off against a London detective in this veddy British thriller about a bodyguarding job gone horribly awry. Some of Kernick's writing is quite clever and he often makes a nice turn of phrase, but the alternating first person narrative and some problems with the characters spoiled this for me.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Well, I have returned. And of course I had a wonderful time, Greece being the place where my wandering heart lies. I don’t quite remember how many times I have been -- although it wouldn’t be a great task if I only took a minute to think about it. It’s mildly depressing how normality reasserts itself with such speed. We returned, naturally, to rain. Confessing that I love returning to rain -- the stark dissonance between the two climates delights me; the contrast strengthens the concept of "Greece" -- may make you think me odd, but there we go. And not only have I returned to rain, but to a nice new layout for The Crime Fiction Dossier, rumours that Henning Mankell is a plagiarist, and the cheering news that at least three people I know have died in the two weeks I’ve been away.

I shall now take a few minutes of my time to speak of my trip. Share them if you wish (after all, it’s only me being indulgent), otherwise skip to the end where I’ve put a couple of links (including more news about Ian McEwan’s next novel).
 
We had to leave at some ungodly hour of the morning (2 o’clock, I think), given that we live about four hours from Gatwick airport. We were driven there (“Airport Shuttle” – about the same cost of airport parking and saves a lot of hassle) by a man who looked remarkably like Joe Pesci, and arrived to the news that our flight was delayed by two hours. Which eventually morphed into four. I was fine, of course: Gatwick has a truly stupid number of bookshops. I browsed for ages, coming away with several pleasing tomes (Andrew Taylor’s The American Boy aka An Unpardonable Crime; He Who Fears the Wolf by Karrin Fossum; Last Car to Elysian Fields by James Lee Burke, and The Full Cupboard of Life). In the end I needed them, as I wildly underestimated the amount of reading I’d get done. I don’t think I’ve ever read quite so much in my life: 14 books (one per day), two short story collections, and Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country?
 
I began by starting DBC Pierre’s debut and Booker winner, Vernon God Little. Unfortunately, it is so BAD that I had discarded it for Paul Johnston's A Deeper Shade of Blue (a detective series set in Greece, what joy; I've been waiting years for it, and was almost on the point of starting one myself. I jest) even by the time the plane had left the ground. I’ve never come across such a lot of self-indulgent rubbish. It’s supposed to be a satire (it’s styled "A 21st Century Comedy in the Presence of Death") but as satires go it certainly isn’t piercing. Some Americans are fat and watch quite a bit of TV? Wow – astute. Texans like devouring BBQ Chicken and using the death penalty? Hilarious.  Calling a mu-mu a moo-moo? Witty, man. I found it incredibly annoying, a tiny bit exploitive. I cannot remember the last time I put a book down after only 65 pages (it might eve never have happened; once I get that far in I like to continue), and that I have now disappoints me a great deal. Every book is someone’s award winner, (hell, even James Patterson has won an Edgar), but how this beat Zoë Heller or Margaret Atwood will, in the fullness of time, become one of life’s great mysteries. You mark my words.
 
The flight there was by no means the highlight of my lifetime’s aviationary experience. The delay was due to a person having opened the emergency door somewhere over Africa – they had to fly in another plane from Djibouti, or all places. The seats were uncomfortable; there was a rather ominous noise for about ten minutes after take-off that sounded like something loose was flapping against the side of the cabin; coffee stains ran down the undersides of the meal trays; the emergency lights along the aisle were fastened down with sellotape, and the whole craft generally gave the impression that it should have been scrapped about two years ago. The meal was described as “Hot Breakfast”, although I’m afraid that I’m going to have to take their word for that – certainly I’ve no idea if it was actually breakfast, or anything which normally constitutes that meal: it was just mush a la sausage. Nor was it particularly hot. Thank God for that tiny tasteless bread roll – at least there was no possible mystery there. And I normally LIKE airplane food. The rest of the vacation passed delightfully and with nary a hitch. Beautiful sun (with a wonderful breeze); excellent food; stunning scenery; general Greek-ness; sunsets which turned the sky the colour of torchlight through flesh. And, of course, a feast of reading.
 
Given that Santorini is a volcano, the beaches are black. Despite this remarkable feature, I very rarely went down to them (the sand gets incredibly hot and that sand insinuates itself incredibly everywhere; plus, I don’t go in the sea because I hate feeling covered in salt), much preferring to languish by the hotel pool. The hotel itself was nice and small – I despise huge homogenous complexes with a passion; they are the ruin of tourist resorts which would otherwise be nice - but still provided me with a nice number of people to look at and espy the reading material of. Indeed, I was delighted by how many books I spotted and recognised. There was one family who seemed collectively to be ploughing through the collected works of Bill Bryson – Down Under, Notes from A Small Country, and Notes from A Big Country were all passed round. John Grisham was popular as ever – I spotted The Street Lawyer and TWO copies of The Partner, not including my own. Someone was reading Peter Robinson’s Caedmon’s Song, then John Sandford’s Naked Prey, then Sleep No More by Greg Iles, then Nobody True by James Herbert. Quite a crime fiction fan, obviously. One man was reading Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses for the whole two weeks; his wife read Martina Cole’s The Know, and then two books in succession by Minette Walters. Kathy Reichs, Dean Koontz, and Robert Harris were also spotted, along with a man who told someone he was reading a book called “Birdman”, which was good so far but he’d only read a few pages. You’re in for a treat, I thought. Birdman is possibly not the kind of book I would suggest people read on holiday. But then…different strokes, different strokes. Shockingly (and I truly was shocked), not a single person seemed to be reading The Da Vinci Code, although two young sisters did both read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. I very much wanted to go up to them and tell them how good it was. But, of course, I didn’t. I was far too afraid of seeming to be “forward” or odd. Besides, I don’t know how to talk to people and strangers intimidate me immeasurably. (Socially inept I am.) I would have loved to have gone up to any of these people and spoke with them about the books they were reading (especially the lady reading Minette Walters), but I’m afraid that’s not something I could do. Instead I just listen and look. I love listening to people – there was one absolutely wonderful woman from somewhere near Manchester who would talk and talk, with a myriad wonderful verbal eccentricities. All I need do was bathe in the flow of words and voice, and then nod occasionally.
 
 Sitting by the pool and listening to people talking to one another while I pretended to read is something I did a lot of. It indicates a degree of vicariousness that is probably quite sinister, actually. It paid off, though: I caught one woman telling another how excellent Ruth Rendell was. She seemed even more enthusiastic than me, I have to say. One of the two aforementioned sisters chipped in to say that their mum liked Ruth Rendell. I thought “Well of course she does – everyone’s mum likes Ruth Rendell”. As far as I am aware, this is true – mothers like Ruth Rendell, always. I have never in my life had a friend whose mother has not liked Ruth Rendell. Honestly. Well, never a friend I’ve spoken to about the books their mother reads, anyway. I do not routinely do this with all friends, lest you were wondering.
 
I think that’s about it in terms of the books people were reading. I don’t know why anyone except me would be interested – I am because I always like to get a general idea for what people are reading. There were of course several people with Catherine Cookson-type books, and a veritable hoard of men who probably don’t ever read anything but had picked out the biography of a licentious sports personality to keep them occupied.
 
That was about it for my holiday: reading in the sun and wandering the island. The flight back was far better than on the way out – although I was far too entrenched in The American Boy, a marvellous book, to notice much. I have one final thing to say about it, though. It’s a thing which still has me shocked, especially considering how such a thing is even possible with post-September 11th air-travel: just over the Alps, after the meals had been taken away, I glanced under the seat in front of me. A little way beneath, something long and orange poked out. I leaned down to pick it up. It was a knife. One of those cheap retractable ones, about 6 inches long and half an inch wide, similar to a scalpel, used for cutting paper, with blades the colour of tarnished lead that are incredibly, incredibly sharp. Just lying there in front of me. On an aeroplane. How such a thing could ever come to be there amazes me. I wasn’t at all sure what to do (I didn’t particularly want to become a news story, after all; in an age where people are seemingly not allowed even toothpicks on flights, I certainly didn’t want to be caught with a knife). I picked it up, but forgot to give it in to the cabin crew. Walking into arrivals, I got a little antsy and dropped it in the pot of a large fake fern. No doubt I should probably have given it to somebody, but I was completely off. The positive is that the event has sewn in my mind an interesting idea for a short story.
 
Anyway, that’s it for now.  I had more to say, but this is far, far too much already. As I say, I read more than I ever have in my life, to the extent that I had to turn to the books I had bought at the airport. I was pleased with almost everything else I read - only David Hewson’s A Season for the Dead disappointed me a little.
 
Anyway, before I go, those links (I don’t know if they’ve appeared anywhere else. They may well have done, but I’ve had to catch up on a LOT, and might easily have missed them):
 
Agatha Christie, according to a survey, is the most popular detective novelist in Britain, says The Guardian. Although that's not exactly news.
 
And in an interview with Bloomberg, Ian McEwan says he plans to finish his next novel, “Saturday”, by September, ready for publication in February or March next year.

Oh, and also more about The Curious Incident...

Bestselling author Dean Koontz, a personal favorite of mine, recently did a lengthy Q&A with fans over at ABCNews.

Among the topics he covered are:

His influences: Charles Dickens, James M. Cain, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Herman Wouk, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Conner, Emily Dickinson

His plans for light-averse hero Christopher Snow (Fear Nothing & Seize the Night): "When I started the third Chris Snow book, I quickly discovered that it was likely to be a huge adventure story, packed full of wild stuff, and more epic in scope than the first two. I put it aside to think about it, intending to write False Memory and then go back to it — and instead have written a series of books while I work on the third Snow, which is titled Ride the Storm. It will be done one day, but it's a book that insists on setting its own pace."

The return of Odd Thomas: "Because I was so enchanted by the character of Odd Thomas and because reader mail related to that book has now exceeded the mail volume for any other book I've published, I plan to return to Odd and see where his life has gone since I left him listening to music with Elvis; I'm sure he has more to tell me."

His advice on attracting an agent: "What agents want to see in a query letter is the story of your novel captured in 100 or fewer words, the fewer the better, in such a way that presents its concept clearly and in such a way that makes it sound fresh. They don't want long plot summaries. They don't want to be told that it is thrilling or suspenseful or moving. They want to be shown in a succinct fashion that it's exciting."

He also has some insightful things to say about the writing process.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The current top-selling book on Amazon.com?  Why it's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone...  in ancient Greek!
 
Funny, I didn't know there were that many ancient Greeks still around...

British crime fiction novelist Mark Billingham (Sleepyhead, Scaredy Cat) picks his Top 10 Fictional Detectives for the Guardian Unlimited. It's a strong list, including the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Harry Bosch, Matt Scudder and Dave Robicheaux. (Thanks to Sarah for the link.)
 
One choice that I found particularly interesting was his selection of Sam Spade over Phillip Marlowe. Billingham writes that "I've always slightly preferred Spade to Marlowe, probably just because I thought Hammett was cooler than Chandler."
 
It's likely a minority opinion in the crime fiction community, but one I happen to agree with.  As much as I like Chandler, I always thought Hammett was a little better.
 
I'm surprised he didn't include Robert B. Parker's Spenser, though.  It seems that any list of top detectives would have to include him, even though in recent years he has seemed rather dispensable.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Laura Miller writes a piece in today's New York Times that is likely to outrage many dozens of readers, or however many of them are left, across this illiterate land of ours.  Her premise?  There are too damn many books published every year -- a staggering one per half hour, if estimates are to be believed.
"In all honesty,'' one [publisher] told [Miller], ''a lot of big publishers will say that not only are other publishers publishing too much, but they are, too.'' Obviously, no company wants to decrease the number of terrific books it publishes, and no one plans to produce outright bad ones. Where the going gets tough, or ought to, is among the books that are merely mediocre.
Controversial, provocative, outrageous, maybe even sacrilegious!  How could she even think such a thing?  Could it be, just maybe -- bite your tongue, Montgomery -- because it's true?

As a fairly active book reviewer, I see a lot of books.  Hundreds of 'em... at least a thousand a year, if I had to guess.  They are piled around my office in three to five foot stacks that perpetually threaten to topple over and kill me.

(The upside to that is that if anyone were ever to try a drive-by shooting down our quiet, suburban, dead-end street, the bullets would never reach me.  But the chances of that hardly outweigh the stress of navigating through a maze of books like a rat after cheese.)

Virtually all of the books I get are crime fiction of one sort or another: mysteries, thrillers, suspense, a little bit of horror and true crime.  Books by bestselling authors, debut authors, midlist authors, self-published authors, wannabe authors, old authors, new authors...the list goes on.
 
Some of the books are great (although never as many as one would hope), a lot of them are good, the majority are adequate.  That is what you'd expect.  After all, we're dealing (mostly) with professionals, companies that are doing this in an effort to earn a profit.
 
The shocking part, though, is just how many of these books are truly bad.  I would say conservatively that 10% of these books will never be read.  By anyone.  Not just my copy, either.  Every copy.  (I often wonder if the editor in charge even read it -- I suspect not.)  Many of these books are so bad that I can't even give them away, much less read them myself.
 
The book will languish on a few dozen bookstore shelves, occasionally picked up and quickly perused by a particularly intrepid shopper, then just as quickly replaced, passed over once again.  Eventually it will be returned to the publisher and remaindered, tossed into a bargain book bin with a $2.95 price sticker on it.  And still no one will buy it.
 
Most of the copies will end up on library shelves, ordered by hopeful librarians in a moment of supportive whimsy, eager to provide something new and different for her patrons.  And still it will go unread.  Even for free, no one is willing to take a chance.
 
The book will gather dust, its pages will yellow with time and it will sit.  Year after year, it will remain ignored until it is finally removed, stamped "Discarded" and sent off to the Elephant Graveyard of old library books that nobody wants.
 
What possible reason could there for readers to shun this poor book?  Simple: it is no damn good!  The premise is lame, the plot is trite, the writing pedestrian at best.  The characters are flat and unbelievable, the dialogue is ridiculous.  And it's not even difficult to see this!  Five minutes with the book reveals it wholly unworthy of any further attention.
 
"That's just your opinion!" you cry.  No.  It's more than that.  Even when dealing with art and personal taste, there are independent standards of quality.  It is possible, in some cases even easy, to make objective determinations.  Preferring chicken to pork might be a matter of taste, but refusing to eat a shit sandwich is objective.
 
So why were they published in the first place?  Damned if I know.  Obviously someone thinks them worthy.  Some publisher crunched the numbers and decided the book would earn back its cost, possibly even make a tiny profit.  Who knows, maybe it did.  (After all, those optimistic librarians bought 90% of the copies that were printed, so the publishers made their money.)
 
That's not a good enough reason, though, especially not for an industry that is perpetually crying poormouth.  Flinging clumps of dung at the wall in hopes that some of it will stick is hardly a reliable business model, even if Hollywood does seem to use it successfully.  (The difference is that the movie studios have a potential audience of billions, so they can afford to be looser with their standards.  Publishers have no such luxury.)
 
If we're to see any improvement, it is essential that editors tighten up their standards.  Even if publishers were to eliminate that hypothetical 10% of pure dross it would be significant progress.  If they were to remove another selection of marginal titles, it would be that much better.
 
Sure, readers will have slightly fewer choices when it comes to reading material.  But they weren't liable to pick those books anyway.  A handful of would-be authors won't have the joy of seeing their books in print -- but, then again, they don't deserve to in the first place.  Besides, there are always self-publishing and vanity options available to them.
 
If publishers were to concentrate more on fewer titles -- and even slightly fewer would be a start -- everyone would benefit.  The books would be better, authors would sell more copies, publishers would make more money, and readers would be better served.
 
Or you can try reading the latest mystery featuring a psychic cat on the trail of the century's worst serial killer...but don't say I didn't warn you.

My latest review ran in the Chicago Sun-Times this morning. The book is Laura Lippman's By a Spider's Thread (William Morrow. $24.95). This is the 8th book in the terrific Tess Monaghan series and it's probably the best one yet.
 
Following on the heels of last year's powerful, gripping Every Secret Thing, Spider's Thread proves that Lippman is one of the strongest voices in crime fiction.
 
She also happens to be a very interesting person.  I interviewed her last year and found her fascinating.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Looks like we've got some competition in the blogosphere! Jake McCarthy is 6 and he'll be reviewing a book a week. I wonder if he's interested in mysteries? (By the way, Jake is my boss' son.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

We're a little more than halfway through 2004, so it seemed like an appropriate time to look back at the books that have come out so far this year.

There have been quite a few very good ones that I've enjoyed. I don't think I've been really wowed by anything yet. Admittedly, it's gotten harder to knock my socks off with a book. But I have been highly entertained on many occasions.

Books I really liked:
Barry Eisler: Rain Storm
Willian Kent Krueger: Blood Hollow
Julia Spencer-Fleming: Out of the Deep I Cry
Chris Mooney: Remembering Sarah
David Liss: A Spectacle of Corruption
Laura Lippman: By a Spider's Thread
Robert Ferrigno: The Wake-Up
Jeffery Deaver: Garden of Beasts
Gayle Lynds: The Coil

For debuts, I liked:
J.A. Konrath: Whiskey Sour
Jack Kerley: The Hundredth Man
Harley Jane Kozak: Dating Dead Men
James O. Born: Walking Money
Raelynn Hillhouse: Rift Zone
Dylan Schaffer: Misdemeanor Man

So far a very good year. The crime fiction genre overall is quite strong right now. In addition to those listed above, we've seen good books from stalwarts like Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Larry Block, George Pelecanos (which I didn't really care for, but many others loved), Walter Mosley, John Sandford, Steve Hamilton...

Good stuff!

Deadly Pleasures mystery magazine announced the nominations for the 2004 Barry Awards today. (The winners will be named at the Bouchercon convention in October.) Overall, it's a strong lineup. Selecting just a handful of nominees out of all the possible choices is always a daunting task. When Mystery Ink picks the Gumshoe Award nominees each year, it's a real struggle.

I'm surprised to see that Steve Hamilton's Blood Is the Sky wasn't nominated, though. That was one helluva book -- which is why we gave it the Gumshoe. I'd rather see that on this list than the Lehane book.

Best Mystery Novel
The Guards by Ken Bruen (Minotaur $23.95)
The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (Knopf, $24.00)
Keeping Watch by Laurie R. King. (Bantam $23.95)
Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, (Morrow, $25.95)
Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman (Morrow $ 24.95)
Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95)

Best First Mystery Novel
Mission Flats by Bill Landay (Bantam Press, June £12.99; Delacorte, September $23.95)
Bridge of Sighs by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95)
The Barbed-Wire Kiss by Wallace Stroby (St. Martin’s Minotaur $24.95)
Monkeewrench by P. J. Tracy. (Putnam
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho, $24.00)
Clea's Moon by Edward Wright (Putnam, $23.95)

Best British Mystery Novel
Lazybones by Mark Billingham ((Little, Brown £12.99)
Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday, £12.99)
The Murder Exchange by Simon Kernick (Bantam Press, £12.99)
The House Sitter by Peter Lovesey (Little Brown, £16.99)
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid (HarperCollins, £17.99)
The American Boy (U.S. title: An Unpardonable Crime) by Andrew Taylor (Flamingo, £17.99)

Best Paperback Original Mystery
Dealing in Murder by Elaine Flinn (Avon, $6.50)
Wisdom of the Bone by Christopher Hyde (Onyx, $7.50)
The Courier by Jay MacLarty (Pocket Star, $6.99)
Tough Luck by Jason Starr (Vintage Crime, $12.00
The Shadow of Venus by Judith Van Gieson (Signet, $5.99)
Murder Between the Covers by Elaine Viets (Signet, $5.99)

Best Mystery Short Story
(Click on highlighted titles to read the stories, courtesy of Deadly Pleasures)
Doug Allyn - "The Blind Pig" (EQMM May 2003)
Robert Barnard - "Rogues' Gallery" (EQMM March 2003)
Brendan DuBois - "Always Another War" (AHMM July-August 2003)
Clark Howard - "The Mask of Peter" (EQMM April 2003)
Donald Olson - "Rogue's Run" (EQMM April 2003)

Out of these choices, my picks would be:
Laura Lippman for Best Mystery, P.J. Tracy for Best First and Elain Flinn for Best PBO. I haven't read any of the British books or the short stories (yet).

Monday, July 12, 2004

Interesting discussion going on today over on Sarah Weinman's Gumshoe Award-winning blog. The topic is Patrick Anderson's pan in the Washington Post of Kevin Wignall's new book For the Dogs.

Here's the end of the first paragraph from Anderson's review:
In my experience, if a novel starts off badly, it isn't likely to turn into "The Great Gatsby" on Page 35, and if one starts off really well, there's a good chance it will stay that way. But there are exceptions. Take for example Kevin Wignall's second novel, "For the Dogs."
Ouch!

Sarah's take on it was that the review was lazy, gives away far too much of the plot, and doesn't justify its positions. I didn't see it quite as harshly, though. (Admittedly, Kevin is a friend of Sarah's, which probably affects her reaction. I know it does mine when I read reviews of my friends' books.)

I don't think it's that bad of a review. Or, more precisely, I don't think it's a particularly unfair one. I don't read all of Patrick's reviews, but I believe he's a fair critic. He didn't care for the book and he does give some reasons why. That's legitimate, even if it is painful to read. He says the plot is improbable, he doesn't buy the hit man character, the ending is over-the-top. Maybe he's wrong (dunno -- haven't read it yet) but that all seems fair enough.

I do agree with Sarah that he gives away much too much of the plot. I hate that. But a lot of reviewers do it, especially when they're filling out a whole column with just one book. On that basis, it's a lousy review. But the rest of it seems okay to me.

I would be loathe to slam an unknown writer like this... but I don't think everyone has to hold to the same code that I do.

The upside is that it's still a long review in a major publication -- far, far better than silence!

Here's the blurb that I'm sure Kevin's publisher will pull from the review:

"Nicely told. The writing is smooth, taut, understated, unsentimental." --Washington Post

You could do a lot worse!

[Just got this interview in some publicity materials for Karin Slaughter's new book Indelible. This is probably a massive copyright violation of one kind of another, but what the hell, I thought I'd share it with you anyway. --ed.]

Karin Slaughter Interviewed by John Connolly

Slaughter grew up in the town of Jonesboro, about 20 kilometers south of Atlanta. "It's a very small town, or it was when I was living there. Now it's been sucked into Atlanta, like most suburbs. There was a main street, very much like the one I write about, with a courthouse and an ice-cream parlor and the law office. I always knew if I did something wrong and someone saw me, then my parents would find out by the time I got home, which is a horrible way to grow up."

Following her parents' divorce, she moved to the university town of Morrow, eventually going on to college there before dropping out when she was told that she could not keep taking English literature courses alone. (Slaughter is, it's worth noting, very southern, explaining at one point how a lot of "Yankees" have come to Georgia to study, attracted by the state's lottery-funded scholarship program. "Subsequently, the standards at our state universities have dropped considerably," she concludes, and it's hard to tell if she's joking or not.)

"I was also influenced by Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, that sort of thing," she says. When asked why southern writers appear to have a very distinctive voice, and a very strong influence on those who fall under their sway, she replies, with a hint of tongue-in-cheek, that "we're just better. When Walker Percy won the Pulitzer prize, people asked him what made southern writers better than other American writers, and he said because we've had the Fall'. We lost the war. We also have a very strong sense of oral history. There's always a story behind even the simplest of things. The whole way that southern writers focus on characterization in the story comes from that oral history.

"I think that every writer is a regional writer, and to deny that denies who you are as a writer. I mean you really have to stay where you're from and write what you know. It’s really popular now for writers to move to the south and say that they're southern writers but, as we say, just because a cat has kittens in the oven it doesn't make them biscuits."

I found the interview online, so you can read the rest of it on John's website.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

The ABA's Book Sense picks for August are out and they include a handful of crime fiction titles. (See the complete list.)

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay (Doubleday, $22.95)
By a Spider's Thread, by Laura Lippman (Morrow, $24.95)
Rift Zone, by Raelynn Hillhouse (Forge, $24.95)
After the Rain, by Chuck Logan (HarperCollins, $24.95)
Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery, by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown, $24.95)
Bangkok 8: A Novel, by John Burdett (Vintage, $12.95 paper)

I've read the first 3 so far. Laura Lippman's new one, in particular, is terrific. Probably the best Tess Monaghan book she's done so far. (Although, I must confess, I haven't read all of them.) Raelynn Hillhouse's book is an excellent debut thriller that I enjoyed a lot. The Jeff Lindsay book is another "serial killer with a twist" story which works pretty well for the first half although it gets a little more mundane after that.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Lawrence Block's next book is reportedly done. It's to be called The Flowers Are Dying. No word yet on which series, if any, it's a part of. It sounds like it could be a Matt Scudder, though, which would make me very happy.

According to Maggie Griffin, Larry's webmaven, the manuscript is over 400 pages long, and it's a dark tale.

Looking forward to it already.

Monday, July 05, 2004

A post on Lawrence Block's message board -- about how people became Block fans -- got me thinking... At first I wasn't sure I could remember how I first encountered the wonderful master of the mystery, but the more I pondered it, the more I recalled.

I haven't been reading Block as long as many folks, I'm sure. Maybe 14 years or so. (I think I started around the time that A Ticket to the Boneyard came out.) Fourteen years might sound like a long time -- but, of course, the man's been writing for over 40 years!

If my increasingly faulty memory serves me, I first learned about Larry Block in Art Bourgeau's The Mystery Lover's Companion, a well-thumbed, underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of which still sits on a shelf about 4 feet away. Bourgeau's book served as my roadmap to the mystery genre, and his recommendation of Block convinced me to give him a try.

I was still fairly new to the genre then, and exploring a variety of writers to find people I liked. Right from the beginning, I loved LB's books. I immediately began hunting them out and buying everything I could. (It's easier nowaways, with the internet, to fill out your collection of an author's back catalog. I enjoy the convenience of it, but miss the hunt of the old days.)

I read all the Scudders first. Those were the ones that really sold me. Block can write a detective novel as good as (more likely, better than) anyone who's ever done it.

The flawed but fascinating protagonist; the expert use of setting (nobody makes New York come alive like Block); the host of intriguing supporting characters (who could ever forget Mick Ballou, in particular?); the twisted and gripping plots; the masterful, fresh and original voice... Block brought together all of the elements of the detective novel to create a memorable series that has lasted longer, at a higher level, than anyone else has ever been able to manage.

I have enjoyed the other series as well. The earlier Burglar books, especially, are terrific. Keller is a real gem -- Hit Man is pure brilliance. Tanner is fun. The standalones have also been well worth reading. But for me, Scudder will always be King.

One of the great things about Block as an author is that he has written so many books, and so many different kinds of mysteries, that chances are he has something that will appeal to almost any mystery fan. If you haven't yet had the chance to read his work, I hope you'll pick one up soon.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Val McDermid has won the Sherlock Award for Best Crime Novel with The Distant Echo, so many congratulations Val! (Thanks to the ever-diligent Ali for bringing that to my attention.) Paul Johnston's The Last Red Death got Best Detective Novel; Christopher Brookmyre's Be My Enemy took Best Comic Detective Novel; and P.D. James adds yet another Lifetime's Achievement award to her heavily laden plaudit belt.

Robert Wilson's second Javier Falcon novel, The Silent and the Damned, is to be published in Britain this September. However, not only does America have to wait until January, but it has to put up with an incredibly stupid title change. (I mean, come on.)

Try as one might, while perusing the British media lately it is impossible not to trip over the mountain of articles about retired MI5 chief Stella Rimington. (Louis de Bernieres, too. And boy, does Tom Paulin hate him. Anyone who watched Friday's Newsnight Review (which is probably just me) will know of what I speak.) Anyway, The Observer interview her and The Independent review her book.

At The Independent, there's also yet another review of Steven Sherril's Visits from the Drowned Girl.

John Mullan at The Guardian leaps quietly to the defence of Lynne Truss, and from the same paper here's a review of Louse Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die - Alan Wall is clearly not too impressed by it. Neither was Jane Jakeman. Thanks go to Sarah for that last link, who has just done an excellent and wonderfully lengthy interview with Michael Connelly.

Anyway, Fiona's going on holiday tomorrow. Two weeks in Santorini, Greece. I have a huge pile of books ready. This pile includes: Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre; Black Cherry Blues - James Lee Burke; A Deeper Shade of Blue - Paul Johnston; Want to Play? - P.J. Tracy (incidentally, Live Bait is this week at number 7 for bestselling hardback fiction); A Season for the Dead - David Hewson; The Child in Time - Ian McEwan; Wilful Behaviour - Donna Leon; One Step Behind - Henning Mankell (since converting Sofiya I have been on a considerable Mankell high) and Mark Billingham's The Burning Girl. You probably didn't need to know all those, but oh well. I always like to know what people are going to be reading.

One of the things which strongly hints at the depths of my reading obsession is that, when on holiday, I expend considerable effort trying to spot what other people are reading. I sneak covert glances while I sit around the swimming pool; I am prepared to walk great great distances along a beach just to have a look at what books people have. Little trills of pleasure ring through me when I spot someone reading a book I like. I also should look forward to holidays (or even vacations) for more than the fact that I'll be able to read a lot.

Anyway, in the meantime, go here. It's a yahoogroup for readers of crime novels, set up by UK thriller writer Tony Strong. He's roped in some exciting writers to share their reccomended reads as well: Simon Kernick, Denise Mina, Jane Jakeman, Patricia Hall.


~In an interview on his website about his latest book Garden of Beasts (which is very good but not his best) Jeffery deaver has said that his 2005 Rhyme novel will be called Gallows Heights~

Friday, July 02, 2004

These came out a while ago, but I thought I should share them with you.

2004 SHAMUS AWARDS NOMINEES ANNOUNCED

The Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) is proud to announce its nominees for the 2004 Shamus Awards, honoring excellence in the Private Eye writing tradition. Books and short stories first published in 2003 were eligible for consideration. In each work the main character must be a person paid for investigative work but not employed by a unit of government. Thus books and stories about private investigators (licensed and unlicensed), lawyers and reporters who do their own legwork, and other hired agents are eligible; works centering on law enforcement officers or amateur sleuths are not.

PWA was founded in 1981 by Robert J. Randisi. Past Presidents have included Bill Pronzini, Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, and Lawrence Block; currently the organization is headed by President SJ Rozan and Vice President Steve Hamilton.

2004 Shamus Nominations:

Best Novel
THE GUARDS by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
SCAVENGER HUNT by Robert Ferrigno (Pantheon)
BLOOD IS THE SKY by Steve Hamilton (St. Martin'sThomas Dunne Books)
A VISIBLE DARKNESS by Jonathon King (Dutton)
FATAL FLAW by William Lashner (William Morrow)

Best First Novel
SPIKED by Mark Arsenault (Poisoned Pen Press)
LOVERS CROSSING by James C. Mitchell (St. Martin's Press)
BLACK MAPS by Peter Spiegelman (Knopf)

Best Paperback Original
DRAGONFLY BONES by David Cole (Avon)
WET DEBT by Richard Helms (Back Alley)
THICKER THAN WATER by PJ Parrish (Pinnacle)
COLD QUARRY by Andy Straka (Signet)

Best Short Story
"The Rock in the Orange Grove," Mitch Alderman, ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S
MYSTERY MAGAZINE
"Valhalla," Doug Allyn, ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE
"Munchies," Jack Bludis, HARDBROILED
"Slayer Statute," Janet Dawson, ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE
"Lady on Ice," Loren D. Estleman, A HOT AND SULTRY NIGHT FOR CRIME

2004 Shamus committee members were:

BEST P.I. NOVEL
J. Michael Blue, Chair
James W. Hall
PJ Parrish

BEST FIRST P.I. NOVEL
Gary Warren Niebuhr, Chair
Reed F. Coleman
Sue Grafton

BEST PAPERBACK ORIGINAL P.I. NOVEL
Mark Troy, chair
Jim Fusilli
Carolina Garcia-Aguilera

BEST P.I. SHORT STORY
Terence Faherty, chair
Jerry Kennealy
Gay Toltl Kinman

The Shamus Awards will be presented in October at PWA's 22nd anniversary banquet, to be held in Toronto, Canada in October 2004.

Courtesy of Maggie Griffin, one of the mystery world's coolest (and busiest) people, webmaven for Lee Child, Larry Block, Steve Hamilton, et al, partner of Partners & Crime mystery bookstore in NYC... She knows from whence she speaks!

MYSTERY CONVENTION SURVIVAL GUIDE

Only two maxims need to be remembered:

A) Never invite people to your room.
B) Free is good.

1: Find out when happy hour begins and suggest meeting people at the bar (see #A). That's where you'll find them anyway, right next to their publicist who sports a corporate credit card (see #B).

2: By 3:00 am you'll be too drunk to contemplate hanging up your clothes (see #A) so bring wrinkle-free shirts and an extra, empty duffle bag (see #B).

3: Grab as many free books as you can (see #B), stash them in your room (see #A). Go back for extras before they run out; that second duffle bag holds more than you think. Tell everyone proffering pamphlets that you already have one; you're only wasting their (and your) time engaging in a long conversation (see #A again).

4: Locate the hotel restaurant and avoid it like the plague. Search out any publicist who hasn't yet maxed out their credit card and stick like glue (see #B).

5: Never admit to ordering porn on your hotel TV (see #A) in case mysterious charges appear on your bill at check-out (see #B).

6: Repeat until you can say with the utmost sincerity: "I had a great time at your panel but you couldn't see me because I was sitting behind that awful woman with big hair." It may not be true, but flattery is free (see #B).

7: Even if it's free (see #B), never agree to meet for breakfast unless you're a devout Mormon (see #A). Bring lots of aspirin and Alka-Selzer or better yet, borrow (see #B again). If you get the chance, recommend to every publicist that they provide promotional aspirin and Alka-Selzer (one never runs out of applications for #B).

And last but not least:

8: Don't go home without having introduced yourself to at least one author you've always wanted to meet but were afraid to approach. They're there to meet their fans (see #A). And, who knows? Maybe they'll be available for lunch? (see #B)