Thursday, November 16, 2017

It’s Bouchercon Memories That Remain

(Above) The Jacques Cartier Bridge, spanning the Saint Lawrence River—offering unexpected nighttime delights in Montreal. (All photographs in this post, © 2017 Jacques Filippi.)

(Editor’s note: In early September, after I decided against attending this year’s Bouchercon—set to take place in Toronto, Ontario, from October 12 to 15—I turned for back-up to Quebec writer, photographer, and translator Jacques Filippi. Rap Sheet readers will recognize Jacques, a Montreal-area resident, as a periodic contributor to this page and as the creator of a fine blog called The House of Crime and Mystery. In addition, he and John McFetridge co-edited a new short-story collection, Montreal Noir (Akashic). I knew Jacques was planning to be in Toronto for Bouchercon, so I asked him whether he would be willing to take notes on the proceedings and shoot pictures of convention participants, and submit a wrap-up of the event to The Rap Sheet. He accepted the assignment, and I looked forward to receiving his report. Unfortunately, not long after Bouchercon ended, Jacques was faced with a family crisis that delayed his finishing the project. It wasn’t until a few days ago that he sent me his text and images. I’m glad to be able to finally present them below.)

Road Trip: Of Wrong Turns and Right Words

With Canada having celebrated its 150th birthday not long before Bouchercon kicked off last month in the Ontario capital, Toronto, some attendees decided to visit the country early, or to remain here a few extra days to see more of the place. During the pre-Bouchercon weekend, I welcomed to Montreal author Karin Salvalaggio (Silent Rain), who came all the way from England, as well as editor-blogger Peter Rozovsky (the brains behind Noir at the Bar), from Philadelphia. Over the course of Bouchercon week, more than a few American visitors asked about living in Canada, and some even tried to find rooms where they might stay after the gathering closed. As you can see in the image on the right, Karin was one of the first to experiment with trying to actually pass as a Canadian (she’s been living in London for many years, but was born in West Virginia and still retains her U.S. citizenship).

(Right) Karin Salvalaggio wearing a Canadian toque (in French: tuque) and holding a false Canadian passport, issued by the Unemployed Philosophers Guild.

The three of us spent a lot of time the weekend before the convention walking through my city’s Old Town (2017 also marks the 375th anniversary of Montreal’s founding), just taking pictures, chatting with locals, and of course, eating and drinking. The neighborhoods of Little Burgundy and Little Italy were also favorite destinations, with their plenitude of cafés, restaurants, and boutiques. In the latter quarter’s Jean-Talon Market, Karin was amazed that pumpkins were so easy to come by—and at such ridiculously low prices, too. One evening, I took Karin and Peter to a “secret” spot I very much enjoy, a parking lot at the foot of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, where we almost ruined our shoes treading through mud and gaping puddles of dirty water.

There’s nothing like taking a road trip to help people get better acquainted, especially when—as in the case of Highway 401, between Montreal and Toronto—the scenery along the way is far from entertaining (to say the least). That drive usually takes five or six hours, depending on how many stops you make; but Karin, Peter, and I completed it in an astounding eight-and-a-half hours, due to three sites of major road construction. (One of them left us at a standstill for 50 minutes!) Peter used the time to take an abundance of photographs—mostly of empty fields, stationary automobiles, and clouds that he likely tweaked later on, with the help of technology, to become busy plains, fast-running cars, and rainstorms. I invite you to look over his brief account of our trip, and the rest of his Bouchercon coverage, in the blog Detectives Beyond Borders.

Peter Rozovsky playing it cool in front of a sign advertising the Canadian dish poutine, at Jean-Talon Market, in Montreal.

That Monday (October 9), we piled into the car and sped off west. It happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving, so we fell into talking about all things Canadian—from maple syrup, maple-glazed doughnuts, and maple-stuffed doughnuts to Tim Hortons (a fast-food chain co-founded by a former hockey player with the Toronto Maple Leafs), our colorful Canadian currency (worth somewhat less than the maple syrup), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and much more. We also listened to a lot of music—some of it Canadian, and even some in French. We experienced moments of exhaustion and of being fed up with the journey (especially toward the end), but we managed to find fun en route, too, as when we decided to share our favorite lists of swear words in diverse languages. It turned out that Peter was well-versed in Yiddish and Portuguese expletives; Karin showed how a life spent in different countries had enriched her vocabulary (the Brits and Italians were especially to thank for that); and I, naturally, instructed my guests in how to curse like true Québécois. Many laughs and great memories. The next time you see any one of us, don’t hesitate to share your own choice foreign obscenities: we’re always looking to improve our international conversational skills.

After finally reaching Toronto, we bumped into writer, editor, lawyer, and British Crime Writers Association chair Martin Edwards and convinced him to have dinner with us. I think at the mention of wine he was in, given his long flight from the UK.

We spent Bouchercon week in Canada’s most populous city much in the same way as we had our time in Montreal—walking. We paid a call on the Hockey Hall of Fame, and we explored the beautiful Art Gallery of Ontario, noteworthy in particular for its “At Home with Monsters” exhibit (a personal project from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro). Oh, and we enjoyed multiple coffees and scones at Dineen’s.

Sightseeing below Niagara Falls.

On Wednesday (October 11), I took part in a doomed trip to Niagara Falls, on the Ontario-New York border, accompanied by Karin and her good friend, UK crime writer Steph Broadribb (Deep Down Dead). The two buses carrying tour participants departed our convention hotel (the Sheraton Toronto on Queen Street West) around 9 a.m., and we stopped in transit at Pillitteri Estates Winery for a quick wine and icewine tasting. Niagara Falls was, well, wet and windy and cold. However, it was the trip back that proved to be most memorable. Our bus started making weird noises, and the driver let it be known that mechanical problems made it impossible for him to reverse the vehicle. Plus, he didn’t want to stop anywhere until we got back to our hotel, because he was afraid the engine wouldn’t start again.

But those difficulties were nothing compared with what happened to our companion bus. At one point it slipped sideways, somehow, and careered off the pavement after first knocking over a big pot of flowers decorating the roadway median. Police were called in to straighten out the situation. Once it was determined that the bus had suffered no appreciable damages, it was towed to the road once more and wound its way back to Toronto—at close to midnight. Our own bus had returned earlier, at 8 p.m. or so, after enjoying the closeness of Torontonians during rush hour, and traveling at 10 km/hour.

Bouchercon: Of Protagonists, Flawed and Forceful

On Thursday, it was time to start the convention. As usual, the schedule offered too many panel discussions at the same time—or sometimes not enough, depending on what you were looking for. The sessions were always interesting, and often inspiring. Though occasionally they were a bit weird. Or funny.

My favorite such presentation was actually the first one I attended. Titled “Heroes and Antiheroes,” it was moderated by J. Kent Messum, a Canadian writer (who is also a creative-writing instructor at the University of Toronto), and featured Down & Out Books publisher Eric Campbell together with authors Alison Gaylin, Stuart Neville, Dana King, and David Swinson. The group quickly tossed the label “heroes” out of the equation, insisting true heroes don’t exist any longer in fiction (at least not in the sense that they used to be represented). Besides, they agreed, perfect protagonists aren’t very interesting in the long run. The panelists contended that nowadays, authors as well as readers and moviegoers prefer antiheroes, or flawed protagonists. To back up this assertion, they placed in evidence today’s superhero films, noting that Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and their ilk are portrayed as characters undergoing emotional turmoil; in other words, players closer to “normal” mortals. Panelists worked to define the attributes of an appealing antihero, one who seeks to make the world a better place while also getting in closer touch with his/her human side. They agreed that their goal was to create antiheroes with tough choices before them—choices that often ride the fine line between being right and wrong; choices that might not lead to ideal outcomes, but can often lead to deserved ones.

The “Heroes and Antiheroes” panelists. Left to right: Alison Gaylin, Eric Campbell, Stuart Neville, Dana King, David Swinson, and moderator J. Kent Messum. They’re laughing because I said the magic word “poutine.”

Another panel exchange, intriguing for the wide range of crime-fiction styles it considered, was called “Duos—Two Lead Characters Are Better Than One.” Moderated by Georgia novelist Roger Johns (Dark River Rising), it offered an eclectic group of authors: Thomas Enger, James Hayman, Heather Gudenkauf, Craig Robertson, and D.D. Ayres (aka Laura Castoro). Their back-and-forth extended from conventional investigations steered by partnered detectives to stories involving paired protagonists from separate series and yarns in which K-9 Rescue dogs work with police officers. It wasn’t always easy for Johns to keep the conversation flowing in one direction, but the results were nonetheless thought-provoking.

I also quite enjoyed a presentation refereed by Rob Hart (The Woman from Prague) and featuring fellow wordsmiths Bill Beverly, David Housewright, Rick Mofina, D.M. Pulley, and Bob Truluck. It was titled “Did I Write That?—Characters Take on a Life of Their Own.” I’ve never really believed that a player plucked from the author’s imagination should be allowed to abscond with the storytelling reins, preferring the idea of the writer maintaining control. But apparently, there are authors out there (including one from this panel) who allow their characters to run away with their tales, if they demonstrate both inclination and ability. Or that’s the way they say it works, anyhow. If a yarn takes an unexpected turn, though, is it really a character forcing that change, or does the writer simply (perhaps unconsciously) desire a new direction? Should a protagonist who appears to demand story-steering privileges be described as a “ghost writer”? And is an exorcism then needed in order for the author to wrest back the management of his or her narrative? This panel may not have answered all of those questions during its hour-long extent, but it still provided a rare and stimulating look into assorted creative minds.

“Did I Write That?” panelists Bill Beverly (who was given the Mark Twain American Voice in Literature prize not long after Bouchercon ended), David Housewright, and Rick Mofina.

The Sheraton Hotel was well located, right in the middle of downtown. However, Bouchercon attendees regularly commented negatively about its configuration. “It’s too big,” several groused. “There are too many floors for the panels,” said others, while a few disparaged the lodgings’ imbibing facilities: “There are two bars in the hotel, but they’re both too small” (which evidently convinced many people to search out watering holes beyond the hotel’s walls—it was a good thing there were plenty nearby). Another complaint I heard repeated: “We have one perfect location in the entrance hall for meet-and-greets, but we’re not allowed to drink there.”

Beyond these criticisms, comments on Bouchercon 2017 were generally favorable. I think everyone agreed that this year’s organizers did a bang-up job. Yes, this event was pretty intense, but the week provided a multitude of opportunities for people to bump into old friends and make new ones, to meet with publishers and schedule lunches with editors, and to seek cafés as escapes from the craziness of the convention crowd. Each evening was busy with attendees socializing over drinks, and then dropping with exhaustion in their rooms, barely reaching their beds in time.

My last dinner in the city, on Saturday night, was a welcome, quiet affair involving British publisher Ruth Tross, from Hodder & Stoughton; Bliss House author Laura Benedict (who has yet another new novel due out next year, from Mulholland Books); and Karin Salvalaggio (her again!). Then, on Sunday, it was time to hit the road once more. The drive back to Montreal—which I took alone—lasted only 5 hours and 15 minutes. Hey, Peter Rozovsky. Did you hear that? It wasn’t my fault that we spent so long wheeling west from Toronto. I made considerably better time when there was no road construction!

Scottish author Craig Robertson (Murderabilia) wearing a kilt. After Bouchercon, he wed novelist Alexandra Sokoloff.

Writers Joe Clifford and Hilary Davidson.

Screenwriter-turned-author Guy Bolton (far left) poses with fellow Brit Mark Billingham and American Bill Beverly.

Award-winning Missouri novelist Laura McHugh.

William Shaw (The Birdwatcher) and Joe Ide (IQ) with Hachette publicists extraordinaire Sabrina Callahan and Pamela Porter.

My friend and Montreal Noir collaborator/co-editor, John McFetridge, alongside author Eric Beetner.

Orenda publisher Karen Sullivan squeezed between two of her popular authors, Antti Tuomainen and Steph Broadribb.

New Jersey journalist-turned-novelist Cate Holahan, whose latest book, Lies She Told, was named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2017.

Fictionists Jeffrey Siger and Jay Stringer stand with Erin Mitchell, who will be helping to organize next year’s Bouchercon in St. Petersburg—Florida, that is, not Russia.

Last but not least, we have Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine; K.J. Howe, ThrillerFest executive director and new author; and of course, yours truly, Jacques Filippi.

Chandler Resurrected—and Pissed Off

Think you’ve read all of Raymond Chandler’s fiction? Think again. As Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports,
A lost story by Raymond Chandler, written almost at the end of his life, sees the author taking on a different sort of villain to the hardboiled criminals of his beloved Philip Marlowe stories: the US healthcare system.

Found in Chandler’s archives at the Bodleian Library in Oxford by Andrew Gulli, managing editor of
The Strand Magazine, the story, “It’s All Right—He Only Died,” opens as a “filthy figure on a stretcher” arrives at a hospital. The man, who smells of whisky, has been hit by a truck, and staff at the hospital are loth to treat him because they assume he will be unable to pay for his care. “The hospital rule was adamant: A fifty dollar deposit or no admission,” writes Chandler.

Gulli said the story was one of the last things Chandler ever wrote—it is believed to have been written between July 1956 and spring 1958. Chandler died in 1959. “He’d been in and out of hospital, he’d tried committing suicide once, and he’d had a fall down the stairs,” said Gulli. “The story mirrors some of his experiences of that time. It’s about what he calls a ‘transient,’ a homeless man who gets hit by a truck and who finds himself in a hospital that is reluctant to treat someone who can’t pay the bill. And of course there’s a twist at the end.”

The Strand is publishing the story this weekend, complete with an author’s note from Chandler in which he reveals his fury at the US healthcare system. The doctor who turned away the patient, Chandler writes, had “disgrace[d] himself as a person, as a healer, as a saviour of life, as a man required by his profession never to turn aside from anyone his long-acquired skill might help or save.”
You can purchase a copy of The Strand, Issue 53—containing “It’s All Right—He Only Died”—by clicking here.

(Hat tip to In Reference to Murder.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Serial-Killer Fiction? Not Even Clothes!

I am often amused by the grammatical errors to be found in press releases. You would think that with the amount of money publicists are paid, they could at least invest in good dictionaries.

But one release that came my way today, sent by a book publisher’s representative, really caught me off guard. It began:
As the holiday (and gift guide selection!) season approaches, I wanted to reach out to put a few books on your radar that would make for the perfect stalking stuffers. Both books are small enough to easily add to any stalking!
Of course, neither of the books mentioned thereafter had a darn thing to do with anybody following, pestering, or otherwise threatening another person; clearly, the publicist intended to use “stocking” rather than “stalking.” This is one of many cases where spell-checking software can’t save an incautious writer.

And the Post Toasts …

On Monday, Kirkus Reviews announced its selection of 2017’s best works of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction. Today it’s The Washington Post’s turn. That newspaper’s 10 choices—almost entirely different from Kirkus’—are listed below.

Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland)
Glass Houses, by Louise Penny (Minotaur)
A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carré (Viking)
Little Deaths, by Emma Flint (Hachette)
The Long Drop, by Denise Mina (Little, Brown)
Not a Sound, by Heather Gudenkauf (Park Row)
Prussian Blue, by Philip Kerr (Marian Wood/Putnam)
Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Sleep No More, by P.D. James (Knopf)
The Switch, by Joseph Finder (Dutton)

The Post’s complete assortment of book picks for this year, in 11 categories, can be found by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 11-14-17

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Matters of Opinion

If there’s one thing I learned during my almost six years of writing for Kirkus Reviews, it was that when it came to choosing the “best crime fiction” produced in any given twelvemonth, my opinions often diverged from the publication’s consensus of opinion. This year is no exception. Earlier today, Kirkus released its Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2017 rundown, touting the following works:

Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz (Harper)
The Smack, by Richard Lange (Mulholland)
Say Nothing, by Brad Parks (Dutton)
Exposed, by Lisa Scottoline (St. Martin’s Press)
The Fifth Element, by Jørgen Brekke (Minotaur)
Keep Her Safe, by Sophie Hannah (Morrow)
The Late Show, by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown)
A Cast of Vultures, by Judith Flanders (Minotaur)
Murder in Saint-Germain, by Cara Black (Soho Crime)
Defectors, by Joseph Kanon (Astria)
House of Spies, by Daniel Silva (Harper)
Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke (Mulholland)
Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips (Viking)
Lies She Told, by Cate Holahan (Crooked Lane)

Although I’m still narrowing down my top-five and top-10 crime-fiction choices for the year, I can tell you right now that of the 14 novels Kirkus mentions here, only two have scored spots among my preliminary picks. That has to do in part with the fact that I have not read as many books as all of Kirkus’ reviewers combined; but it’s also true that every individual book critic has his or her own distinctive tastes. It’s just as likely that my selections for 2017 will stand in contrast with those of other Rap Sheet contributors. You will find out for sure come early December, when we all post our “best books of the year” nominations on this page.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Space—the Fatal Frontier

The field of science fiction/crime fiction crossover novels is both rich and diverse, and probably deserves more attention on this page in the future. For the moment, however, let me just mention that November brings two fresh entries to this category of works: Places in the Darkness, by Chris Brookmyre (Orbit), and Artemis, by Andy Weir (Crown). I already picked up a copy of the former book, and I am very much looking forward to buying the latter soon—especially since it seems to be generating a great deal of media attention.

Earlier today, Weir—who first gained literary renown with his 2011 novel, The Martiantalked with Scott Simon on National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday program about his heist-and-conspiracy-on-Earth’s-moon yarn, Artemis. He’d previously answered questions about it from Wired magazine, and had explained to Business Insider why it made more sense to set his “wildly entertaining and far-fetched” second novel on the moon, rather than farther-off Mars.

Get Your Foot in the Door

Entries are now being accepted for the 2018 St. Martin’s Minotaur/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. The victor, to be “chosen by Minotaur Books editors on the basis of the originality, creativity and writing skill of the submission,” will receive a publishing contract and “an advance against future royalties of $10,000.” According to the published guidelines, this contest is open to “any writer, regardless of nationality, aged 18 or older, who has never been the author of any Published Novel (in any genre) … and is not under contract with a publisher for publication of a novel.” The deadline for submissions is January 12, 2018.

Previous winners of this challenge include John Keyse-Walker (Sun, Sand, Murder), Mary Miley (The Impersonator), Douglas Corleone (One Man’s Paradise), and Stefanie Pintoff (In the Shadow of Gotham).

(Hat tip to My Little Corner.)

Friday, November 10, 2017

A Quick Excursion Around the Web

• Damn! I hate being the bearer of this news:
John Hillerman, the actor who made a career out of playing snooty types, including Tom Selleck’s fastidious estate caretaker Jonathan Quayle Higgins III on Magnum, P.I., died Thursday. He was 84.

Hillerman, who received four Emmy nominations in consecutive years for portraying Higgins and won in 1987, died at his home in Houston, family spokeswoman Lori De Waal told the Associated Press. She said the cause of death had not been determined.

His Higgins character was a natural extension of a part he played on the [1975-1976] TV detective show
Ellery Queen: Simon Brimmer, a radio personality and affected gent who fancied himself a savvy sleuth. Ironically, Hillerman, who often played condescending characters with more than a touch of the Tory Brit—the Mayfair accent—was a Texan from a tiny railroad town, the son of a gas station owner.
Hillerman’s face became familiar during an acting career that found him appearing frequently on television, not only on the aforementioned pair of programs, but also in The F.B.I., Mannix, The Betty White Show, Hawaii Five-O, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, Lou Grant, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Valerie, and Murder, She Wrote. My earliest recollection of seeing him was in the 1975 picture Lucky Lady, but he also had roles in such films as The Last Picture Show, Blazing Saddles, Paper Moon, and Chinatown.

• Another notable passing: The Hollywood Reporter brings word that German actress Karin Dor, “who played the red-haired villainess Helga Brandt in the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice,” died this last Monday, November 6, at a nursing home in Munich. She was 79. The Spy Command observes that Dor’s shapely turn as Brandt, “a SPECTRE assassin who is executed by [Ernst Stavro] Blofeld when she fails to kill Sean Connery’s James Bond,” was not her only “brush with the spy genre.” Her most famous role in an espionage flick, it says, “was probably [in] 1969’s Topaz, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. She plays Juanita de Cordoba, who is involved in spying in early 1960s Cuba.” Viewers might recall spotting Dor, as well, in episodes of the American TV series It Takes a Thief, Ironside, and The F.B.I.

• By contrast, here’s an excellent bit of news, via EuroCrime: “Quercus has signed three novels by Philip Kerr, continuing his historical noir series featuring Detective Bernie Gunther.” Meanwhile, Kerr’s 13th and latest Gunther novel, Greeks Bearing Gifts, is due out in the States from Putnam come April of next year.

The Hollywood Reporter brings word that The Little Drummer Girl (1983) will be the next John le Carré spy novel to be adapted for television. The Reporter elaborates:
After taking home the Emmy for The Night Manager, AMC has green-lighted its next John le Carré miniseries: The Little Drummer Girl.

Florence Pugh (
Lady Macbeth) will star in the six-parter based on le Carré‘s best-seller. Park Chan-wook (Old Boy) will make his small-screen debut and direct the series, which is a co-production between the Ink Factory, BBC One, and AMC. Production will begin in January, with Endeavor Content/IMG selling global rights to the series.

Set in the late 1970s,
Drummer Girl is an espionage and international intrigue drama of love and betrayal. Set against the background of rising tensions in the Middle East, the mini revolves around Charlie (Pugh), a young actress who prepares for her ultimate role in the “theater of the real.”
Shane Whaley’s Spybrary blog has a bit more on this film deal. And if there’s something tickling at the back of your brain, suggesting that this isn’t the first time Drummer Girl has been filmed … well, give yourself a gold star. George Roy Hill directed a 1984 big-screen version of le Carré’s Europe-trotting thriller, starring Diane Keaton. That earlier picture won mixed reviews; we’ll have to wait and see whether AMC’s interpretation can spark more enthusiasm.

• Since we’re on the subject of remakes, let me just remind everyone that Kenneth Branagh’s latest take on Agatha Christie’s 1934 whodunit, Murder on the Orient Express, is scheduled to open in theaters today. Critics are already offering opinions—good and not so good—on the production, while Smithsonian magazine has put together an intriguing “true history of the Orient Express.”

• If you’d rather stay in than launch out to a moviehouse, you can watch the 2010 TV adaptation of Orient Express, made as part of the long-running series Agatha Christie’s Poirot (with David Suchet in the starring role), by clicking here. Sadly, the even better 1974 film version, featuring Albert Finney, doesn’t appear to be available online. However, you can at least enjoy its trailer here.

• Stockholm novelist Leif G.W. Persson’s latest mystery, The Dying Detective, is the basis for a new Swedish TV series debuting on January 3. “Rolf Lassgård takes the lead role in the SVT adaptation,” explains The Killing Times, and the show “tells the story of retired Chief of the National Crime Police and Swedish Security Service, Lars Martin Johansson, who has just suffered a stroke. Johansson is paying the price for a life of excess—be it stress, good food, or fine wines. He has dangerously high blood pressure and his heart could fail at any moment. In the hospital, a chance encounter with a neurologist who confides an important piece of information about the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl 25 years earlier piques [Johansson’s interest] and engages his unparalleled police instincts. However, the period for prosecution expired only weeks earlier and that isn’t the only limitation. Lars Martin Johansson is determined to solve the atrocious crime—from his deathbed.” There’s no word yet on whether The Dying Detective will be picked up by UK or U.S. broadcasters.

• Author Martin Edwards, who also happens to be chair of the UK Crime Writers’ Association and an editor of the British Library’s excellent Classic Crime line of books, clues us in on some of the works being readied for reissue as part of that series next year. They include “a new anthology of classic railway mysteries, called Blood on the Tracks,” and “two books from … E.C.R. LoracBats in the Belfry [1937] and Fire in the Thatch [1946].” I am impressed with Edwards’ work on the British Library series, one that I have not yet plumbed to its fullest. More free reading time needed, please!

• In a previous crime-fiction news wrap-up, I mentioned that Southern California writer Tom Nolan, who edited the Library of America omnibus Ross Macdonald: Four Later Novels: Black Money/The Instant Enemy/The Goodbye Look/The Underground Man, had posted essays about three of those Lew Archer detective stories on LOA’s Web site. More recently, he added a fourth essay to the mix, this one examining Macdonald’s 1971 Archer yarn, The Underground Man—one of my favorite entries in the series, and “a runaway bestseller,” thanks in part, Nolan says, to a most laudatory New York Times Book Review critique, penned by author Eudora Welty (who’d become a friend of Macdonald). “If William Goldman’s review of The Goodbye Look [1969] had provoked a sales earthquake for Macdonald,” explains Nolan, “Welty’s of The Underground Man caused a tsunami.” It’s only too bad that Macdonald went on to produce just two more Archer novels, Sleeping Beauty (1973) and The Blue Hammer (1976), before Alzheimer’s disease ended his fiction writing and he died in 1983.

Really, does no one read the Hardy Boys books anymore?

• Gerald So is in the process of rounding up folks to help him celebrate National Poetry Month, coming up again in April 2018. In his role as editor of the “crime poetry weekly” The Five-Two, he’s planning a month-long blog tour, inviting participants to comment on their favorite works from his site or elsewhere, interview Five-Two contributors, or “post your own poetry or fiction in response to a Five-Two poem.” He’ll be happy to link to contributions popping up around the blogosphere, or “if you don’t have a blog, e-mail me your entry and you’ll be my guest here [at The Five-Two ].”

This is an interesting story about “how the world of private investigation has changed,” presented earlier this week on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program: “NPR’s Robert Siegel speaks with journalist Ronen Bergman, who is … a contributing writer for The New York Times and the national security senior correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, about the new world of private investigation firms such as Black Cube, that are employed by law firms representing people such as [Hollywood film mogul] Harvey Weinstein. It was revealed that Weinstein used big-time private investigators to find disparaging information about his accusers as well as prevent publication of stories about himself.”

• Tomorrow is Veterans Day in the States—and just in time, Mystery Fanfare highlights crime-fiction works tied to that holiday.

• Finally, here are three interviews worth investigating: Megan Abbott talks with the Los Angeles Review of Books about her efforts both as a novelist and as a screenwriter; Speaking of Mysteries host Nancie Clare chats with H.B. Lyle about his new historical novel, The Irregular; and Felix Francis fields questions from Mystery Tribune about his latest horse racing-related thriller, Pulse.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Touting Irish Talents

I must have missed spotting the announcement recently of which works and authors were shortlisted for the 2017 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Fortunately, In Reference to Murder’s B.V. Lawson claims sharper eyes, and yesterday she posted the list of finalists for the Irish Independent Crime Fiction Book of the Year as follows:

Can You Keep A Secret? by Karen Perry (Michael Joseph)
Here and Gone, by Haylen Beck (Harvill Secker)
Let the Dead Speak, by Jane Casey (HarperCollins
One Bad Turn, by Sinéad Crowley (Quercus)
There Was a Crooked Man, by Cat Hogan (Poolbeg Press)
The Therapy House, by Julie Parsons (New Island)

You can see all of this year’s Irish Book Award nominees, in 13 categories, by clicking here. Winners are to be announced during a black-tie dinner at Dublin’s Clayton Hotel on November 28.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Revue of Reviewers, 11-6-17

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

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Bullet Points: Day of the Dead Edition

• As Connecticut’s Harford Courant tells it, “The Mark Twain American Voice in Literature award will be given to author Bill Beverly for his novel Dodgers later this month. The Mark Twain House & Museum announced the award, which comes with $25,000, on Wednesday evening. It is presented to an author whose book, published in the previous year, best embodies an ‘American voice’ such as Twain’s in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the museum said in a statement.” Beverly’s writing of Dodgers previously brought him the 2016 Gold Dagger award from Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association.

• How would you like to do your writing on Mickey Spillane’s old typewriter? Mystery Fanfare reports that the circa-1930 Royal Manual machine on which Mike Hammer’s creator may have labored “during his early days as a comic-book writer” will be among the items Heritage Auctions puts up for bids in New York City on March 7, 2018.

• The new German TV series Babylon Berlin, based on a pair (soon to be a trio) of 1920s-set crime novels by Volker Kutscher and featuring a Berlin police inspector named Gereon Rath, has been winning plenty of favorable press since it debuted in Germany on October 13. Kate Connolly of The Guardian writes: “A lavish 16-part TV series set between the two world wars is being tipped as the first big-budget German production that could become a global TV blockbuster. Babylon Berlin, a period drama set in the Weimar Republic replete with crime, corruption, sex and decadence, cost €38m (£33m) to make and is the most expensive TV series filmed in Germany. Critics are predicting it will compete with the likes of Breaking Bad, House of Cards and Downton Abbey.” The Killing Times shorthands the show’s plot thusly: “Set against the social and political upheaval of Germany in 1929—with a failing economy and a rise of right-wing extremists, some may even find timely parallels to events today—nothing is what it seems as the case spirals and Gereon’s life is changed forever.” An English-subtitled version of Babylon Berlin is scheduled to premiere in the UK on November 5 (courtesy of Sky Atlantic), and Netflix has purchased U.S. broadcast rights (though it hasn’t also announced when Americans might be able to watch it). Sky’s trailer for the program is embedded below; a German trailer can be enjoyed here.

For more information, check out the Babylon Berlin Web site.

• “SundanceTV has partnered with Emmy-winning producer and director Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost),” states Criminal Element, “to bring you Cold Blooded, a two-part documentary detailing the murder case that [Truman] Capote made famous [in his 1966 book, In Cold Blood]. The documentary will ‘recount the Clutter murders in detail, using previously unpublished documents, in addition to first-hand accounts from the Clutters’ living relatives’ to provide new insight into this groundbreaking case. Part One premieres on SundanceTV on Saturday, November 18, at 9 p.m. ET.”

• Congratulations to author Duane Swierczynski (Canary, Revolver), whose series pilot adaptation of Dan Simmons’ 2000 novel, Darwin’s Blade—co-written with Chris Morgan (Fast & Furious)—has been sold to NBC-TV. The plot, says Deadline Hollywood, “centers on Darwin ‘Dar’ Minor, a brilliant yet arrogant accident-reconstruction specialist who consults police on the bizarre cases no one else can solve.” Swierczynski is set to co-executive produce the show, as well.

• It had been so long since I last heard anything about director Martin Scorsese’s plans to collaborate with actor Leonard DiCaprio on a big-screen adaptation of Erik Larson’s 2003 non-fiction book, The Devil in the White City, that I’d nearly lost hope of the project’s viability. However, Scorsese told the Toronto Sun late last year that “there is a script being worked on” (purportedly by Hunger Games writer Billy Ray), and on Halloween, the BookBub Blog brought us up to date (as much as possible) on where things stand with that picture. Unfortunately, there’s still no estimate of when this sixth Scorsese-DiCaprio venture might be released.

• I wasn’t a fan of the original S.W.A.T. (see it’s opening title sequence here), so there’s scant chance of my being interested in the revival of that 1975-1976 crime drama. However, the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd insists the new show, debuting tonight on CBS, isn’t without its attractions. “Essentially a militarized police procedural, or perhaps a domesticated military drama,” he explains, S.W.A.T. offers “sexy hardware and specialized jargon,” plus “plenty of action to distract you.” Lloyd says that “With its characters at once thin and broad; its L.A. backdrop; and its mix of existential philosophizing, social commentary and corny representations of hot-button issues, S.W.A.T. also recalls and has some of the appeal of Jack Webb’s classic Dragnet, but with a more progressive outlook and a sprinkling of sex scenes.” Watch a trailer for the series here.

• This, though, does sound worth watching. From Slate:
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale premiered in late April with sickening timing. Donald Trump’s presidency hung over Margaret Atwood’s novel, set in a dystopic, misogynist, theocratic near future, making it feel less like fiction than a terrifying prophecy. This Friday, Netflix debuts Alias Grace, another Atwood adaptation that is dreadfully apropos. The 1996 novel is historical fiction, based on an 1843 true crime, in which 16-year-old Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada, was convicted of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. But Harvey Weinstein, our pussy-grabbing president, and their ilk loom over Alias Grace; indeed, they seem as though they could be characters in Alias Grace, where men misuse women as if it were their right.
• The November edition of Mike Ripley’s “Getting Away with Murder” column for Shots features notes about everything from Lee Child’s latest novel and plans to erect (in north Oxford, England) a statue honoring the late Colin Dexter to the phenomenally prolific James Swallow, the persistently underappreciated works of James Hadley Chase, and new or forthcoming books by Laura Wilson, Håkan Nesser, and Malcolm Mackay. It’s all here.

• Janet Rudolph lets us know that the latest edition of her quarterly magazine, Mystery Readers Journal, is now available. The issue’s theme is Big City Cops, and the contents include this essay by Rennie Airth (The Death of Kings) about the difficulties he faced in shaping his historical British detectives.

Happy 11th “blogiversary” to Double O Section!

• Speaking of anniversaries, Kevin Burton Smith writes in his blog: “It was 20 years ago today that I uploaded a tentative few pages of what became The Thrilling Detective Web Site, for a pal to see. That pal, Peter Walker, seemed to like it, so I invited a few more friends on Rara-Avis, the old hard-boiled list serv, to check it out. Encouraged by their response, I scrambled to make it more presentable, and I officially released the site to the big bad world on April 1, 1998, trying (and inevitably failing) to keep up with the ever-expanding world of private-eye fiction—past, present, and future.” Smith’s frequently updated site is now an essential resource for folks, like me, who wish to learn more about the last century’s worth of American crime fiction. Good for you, Kevin, for achieving this milestone!

• It seems that Roy Price, the chief of Amazon’s video division and the grandson of legendary TV producer-writer Roy Huggins (77 Sunset Strip, The Fugitive, The Rockford Files, etc.), recently found himself ensnared in the web of sexual-harassment scandals that have also claimed Hollywood film mogul Harvey Weinstein, producer-director Brett Ratner, screenwriter James Toback, celebrity chef John Besh, TV star Jeremy Piven, journalists Michael Oreskes and Mark Halperin, amateur politician Donald Trump, and so many other high-profile American men. As The New York Times revealed, the 50-year-old Price, “who was in charge of Amazon’s efforts to create original movies and television shows,” resigned from Amazon Studios—which he’d helped launch in 2012—“just days after a producer publicly accused him of sexual harassment.” The Washington Post said the move followed accusations from Isa Dick Hackett, an executive producer of Amazon’s popular The Man in the High Castle and the daughter of Philip K. Dick (whose 1962 novel of that same name inspired the series), that Price “made unwanted sexual remarks” and repeatedly propositioned her in 2015. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, Wikipedia explains that in the wake of Hackett’s allegations, “Price’s fiancée, Lila Feinberg, announced that she was calling off their wedding. Her dress was reportedly designed by Georgina Chapman, the wife of Harvey Weinstein …”

(Left) Ex-Amazon executive Roy Price

• Actor Kevin Spacey faces his own charges of inappropriate sexual behavior. According to The Huffington Post, the TV streaming service Netflix “has suspended production on the sixth and final season of House of Cards”—in which Spacey plays Machiavellian and murderous politician Frank Underwood—amid allegations dating back to 1986. It was in that year, says fellow performer Anthony Rapp (now appearing in Star Trek: Discovery), that Spacey made “unwanted sexual advances” on him during a party. At the time, Rapp was 14 years old, while Spacey was in his late 20s. Deadline notes that Spacey has “issued a statement on social media saying he ‘did not remember the encounter’ but added he was ‘horrified’ by what Rapp described. … The Oscar-winning Spacey also used the occasion to announce publicly that chose now to ‘to live as a gay man,’ a move that drew harsh rebukes swiftly online and otherwise.” There’s no telling how this controversy will shake out, but at least for now, the 13-episode sixth season of House of Cards is being readied for broadcast on Netflix in mid-2018.

• Ontario author Linwood Barclay talks with Criminal Element about his new novel, Parting Shot, “a standalone thriller that revisits both the backdrop of Promise Falls”—where his recent trilogy (Broken Promise, Far From True, and The Twenty-Three) was set—and that trilogy’s protagonist, private investigator Cal Weaver. Meanwhile, the movie Never Saw It Coming, based on Barclay’s “dark comic thriller” of the same name and shot from a screenplay by the author, will premiere on December 1 at the Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia.

• Nancie Clare’s latest guest on her Speaking of Mysteries podcast is Clea Simon, talking about her new novel, World Enough, which finds “former music journalist Tara Winton revisit[ing] her mid-1980s beat—Boston’s punk rock club scene—in the wake of the apparently accidental death of one of the scene’s prominent musicians.”

• And in The Thrill Begins, Joe Clifford chats with Danny Gardner, whose distinctive, 1950s-set debut novel, A Negro and an Ofay (Down & Out), reached stores this last spring.

• One of the novels I’ve looked forward to picking up this season is Chris Brookmyre’s science fiction/mystery crossover, Places in the Darkness, which is due out early next week from publisher Orbit. So I was pleased to see this interview with the author in Crime Fiction Lover, which includes his description of the book’s plot line:
It is a thriller in the tradition of the great Shane Black movies like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: a story about two mismatched investigators forced to work together, though unlike in Shane’s scripts, my
protagonists are both women. The whole thing takes place aboard the Ciudad de Cielo, a space station where 300,000 people live and work developing what would be the Earth’s first interstellar craft. It is a place where ambitious scientists and engineers go to work on cutting-edge technology, but also where many people go to escape the things that went wrong in their lives back on Earth. The city’s private police force, the Seguridad, boasts that there has never been a murder aboard (though they do have a liberal interpretation of what constitutes an accidental death), but that changes when a dismembered body is found floating in zero-gravity.
R.I.P., Donald Bain, described by The New York Times as “the pseudonymous author of the Murder, She Wrote novels, Margaret Truman’s ‘Capital Crimes’ mysteries and Coffee, Tea or Me? (1967), the supposed memoir of two saucy airline stewardesses.” A onetime airline publicist himself, Bain evidently died from congestive heart failure on Saturday, October 21, in White Plains, New York. Beyond the previously mentioned books, The Gumshoe Site notes that Bain “authored, under the house-name J.D. Hardin, a number of soft-pornographic Western action [novels] featuring Doc Weatherbee, a Pinkerton op, and ghosted Sado Cop (Playboy, 1976) for Nick Vasile, a former undercover cop. A few of his other pseudonyms are Donna Bain, Mike Lundy, Stephanie Blake, and Pamela South. He finally wrote his own mystery thriller, Lights Out! (Severn House), in 2014. His forthcoming books are Allied in Danger, a Capital Crimes novel (Forge, 2018), and A Date with Murder, a Murder She Wrote novel (co-written with Jon Land; Berkley, 2018).” Wikipedia says Bain penned “over 115 books in his 40-year career.” Click here to read John Valeri’s fond “personal remembrance” of Bain in Criminal Element.

• Gone, as well, is Jack Bannon, who’s probably best known for the five seasons he spent playing a dapper assistant newspaper city editor, Art Donovan, on the Emmy Award-winning CBS-TV drama Lou Grant (1977-1982). He passed away on October 22 at 77 years of age. The Hollywood Reporter explains that “Bannon's parents were actors. His mother, Bea Benaderet, received two Emmy nominations for her work on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, portrayed Kate Bradley on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, and was the voice of Betty Rubble on [the cartoon series] The Flintstones. His father, Jim Bannon, played the cowboy Red Ryder in four 1940s movies.” Jack Bannon’s acting credits include appearances on The Felony Squad, Judd for the Defense, Mannix, The Rockford Files, Remington Steele, Moonlighting, and the 1987 teleflick Perry Mason: The Case of the Sinister Spirit. The Hollywood Reporter adds that Bannon died in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where he had “lived … with his wife, actress Ellen Travolta—the older sister of John Travolta—since 1995.”

• Finally, since today marks the end of 2017’s Dia de los Muetros (or Day of the Dead) festival, be sure to check out Mystery Fanfare’s list of crime and mystery novels associated with this occasion.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

All Hail All Hallows’ Eve

With plenty of candy in hand (perhaps too much—again), and a carved pumpkin waiting to greet tonight’s crepuscular treat-seekers, I’m feeling quite prepared for Halloween. Which leaves me free to explore some of the associated coverage rolling out online.

Smithsonian magazine’s Web site, for instance, carries a story about how much more mischievous and unsettling Halloween was during the 19th century. The History Channel offers a video backgrounder on trick-or-treating. Then there’s this rundown of “12 Things You May Not Know About Halloween,” and this collection, in The Lineup, of “14 Creepy and Utterly Bizarre Vintage Halloween Costumes.” Meanwhile, the blog Today I Found Out has put together two worth-invesigating posts—one inquiring into whether “anyone [has] ever actually poisoned or put razor blades or needles in Halloween candy,” and the other exploring the source of werewolf legends.

In Sweet Freedom, Todd Mason looks back at horror anthologies that haunted his childhood, while Janet Rudolph suggests wines and cocktails appropriate to your October 31 festivities. And Terence Towles Canote gathers together another assortment of classic Halloween pin-up images for his blog, A Shroud of Thoughts.

(Hat tip to Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine.)

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Celebrating in Christchurch

Last night brought an announcement, during a special WORD Christchurch event in New Zealand, of which books and authors have won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards. The recipients include the first woman ever to capture the coveted prize for Best Crime Novel.

“Each of our winners this year is a remarkable storyteller who uses crime writing as a prism through which to explore broader human and societal issues,” says Craig Sisterson, the founder and judging convenor of this annual contest. “When we launched in 2010 we wanted to highlight excellence in local crime writing, beyond traditional ideas of puzzling whodunits or airport thrillers. Our 2017 winners emphasize that broader scope to the genre, and showcase the inventiveness and world-class quality of our local storytellers.”

Below are the winners and other finalists in three categories.

Best Crime Novel: The Last Time We Spoke, by Fiona Sussman
(Allison & Busby)

Also nominated: Pancake Money, by Finn Bell (e-book); Spare Me the Truth, by C.J. Carver (Zaffre); Red Herring, by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins); and Marshall’s Law, by Ben Sanders (Allen & Unwin)

Best First Novel: Dead Lemons, by Finn Bell (e-book)

Also nominated: Red Herring, by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins); The Ice Shroud, by Gordon Ell (Bush Press); The Student Body, by Simon Wyatt (Mary Egan); and Days Are Like Grass, by Sue Younger (Eunoia)

Best Non-Fiction: In Dark Places, by Michael Bennett (Paul Little)

Also nominated: The Scene of the Crime, by Steve Braunias (HarperCollins); Double-Edged Sword, by Simonne Butler with Andra Jenkin (Mary Egan); The Many Deaths of Mary Dobie, by David Hastings (AUP); and Blockbuster!, by Lucy Sussex (Text)

To obtain more information about the Ngaio Marsh Awards, this year’s victors or finalists, or comments from the judges, send an e-mail message to Craig Sisterson at

READ MORE:Wonka’s Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight: a 9mm interview with Fiona Sussman,” by Craig Sisterson
(Crime Watch.)

Differences of Opinion

It’s not even Halloween yet, but already we’re seeing inventories of the “Best Crime Fiction of 2017” popping up around the Web. For instance, The Strand Magazine has posted its top choices as follows:

1. The Fifth Petal, by Brunonia Barry (Crown)
2. Two Days Gone, by Randall Silvis (Sourcebooks Landmark)
3. Follow Me Down, by Sherri Smith (Forge)
4. Where Dead Men Meet, by Mark Mills (Blackstone)
5. Fast Falls the Night, by Julia Keller (Minotaur)
6. Burial Hour, by Jeffery Deaver (Grand Central)
7. Friends and Traitors, by John Lawton (Atlantic Monthly Press)
8. Death on Nantucket, by Francine Mathews (Soho Crime)
9. Arrowood, by Mick Finlay (Mira)
10. The Walls, by Hollie Overton (Redhook)
11. Burials, by Mary Anna Evans (Poisoned Pen Press)
12. The Name of the Game Is a Kidnapping, by Keigo Higashino (Vertical)

Meanwhile, Publishers Weekly has come out with its own completely different list of a dozen favorites:

Besieged, by A.J. Tata (Kensington)
The Cuban Affair, by Nelson DeMille (Simon & Schuster)
Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips (Viking)
Flashmob, by Christopher Farnsworth (Morrow)
The Force, by Don Winslow (Morrow)
Little Deaths, by Emma Flint (Hachette)
Long Black Veil, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Crown)
Nine Lessons, by Nicola Upson (Crooked Lane)
The Nine-Tailed Fox, by Martin Limón (Soho Crime)
A Rising Man, by Abir Mukherjee (Pegasus)
Vicious Circle, by C.J. Box (Putnam)
Wolf’s Revenge, by Lachlan Smith (Mysterious Press)

Two other novels that could easily have qualified for that PW roster—Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done (Atlantic Monthly Press) and Dan Chaon’s Ill Will (Ballantine)—appear instead among the publication’s General Fiction picks.

The Rap Sheet probably won’t be out with its own critics’ choice compilations until early December. Until then, we will try to keep track of other such rolls appearing elsewhere.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Story Behind the Story:
“Ten Dead Comedians,” by Fred Van Lente

Author Fred Van Lente

(Editor’s note: This is the 74th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s essay comes from Fred Van Lente, a Brooklyn, New York, writer best known for his work on graphic novels such as Cowboys & Aliens [the basis of the feature film], Odd Is on Our Side with Dean R. Koontz, and several entries in the “gorily funny” Marvel Zombies series. His debut prose novel, Ten Dead Comedians, was released this last summer by Quirk Books. He has a follow-up novel, The Con Artist—set in the comic-book industry—due out in 2018. Van Lente writes below about how his love of stand-up comedy led him to explore that world further in Ten Dead Comedians.)

The town I grew up in was called Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Yes, that was the actual name. Supposedly, it’s a mispronunciation of the original Native American name of the river running through the town, but personally I’ve suspected the original settlers could have benefited from the invention of Xanax.

Chagrin Falls is a small town and, as is often the case in small towns, small differences get magnified, particularly when you’re a kid with a bowl haircut who wears the wrong sneakers and jacket. You can get picked on a lot. And because this wasn’t just a very small town, it was also a very rich town, and the other boys didn’t want to risk mussing up their Izod shirts by actually beating me up, this bullying was verbal, rather than physical in nature.

And this is how I learned to love stand-up comedy.

By the time I reached the fifth and sixth grades, I found that I was better at insults than my tormentors; and if I could make fun of my attacker’s haircut in a clever way, not only did I diffuse his attacks on me, but the other kids would start laughing with me, and not at me. Eventually, the attacks stopped, because they knew I could give back as good as I got. I can’t begin to tell you how empowering that was to a little kid. Words have power!

At about this same time, I discovered the golden age of 1980s comedy on my parents’ HBO-TV screen. I loved Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Bobcat Goldthwait, Sam Kinison, Rosanne Barr, and many others. But my absolute favorite comedian was George Carlin. I loved the way he raised and lowered his voice to make an effect. The way he talked high and fast or low and slow, depending on the point he was making. I listened to cassettes of his albums, such as Place for My Stuff and Class Clown and Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television, until the tape literally broke, hanging on the way he spoke truth to power in such a hilarious way. He wasn’t defending himself against bullies before the homeroom bell, he was going after hypocrisy, politics, racism, and more. That didn’t mean I didn’t incorporate some of his methods into my schoolyard self-defense “act,” of course. Even when I was a ’tween I was like, “I want to do that kind of thing!” Words have power.

Now, in addition to looking like a bookworm, I am, in fact, an actual bookworm. My parents lined our house with books. My mother’s favorites were mysteries—Ten Dead Comedians is dedicated to her. She loved the classic, Golden Age stuff, like Agatha Christie, whose And Then There Were None is Ten Dead’s most direct inspiration. I was more of a Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, noir type. But like all great genres, the mystery can be more than the sum of its parts. The mystery can be “literary” as well as entertainment because, at heart, it’s about an investigation, it’s about peeling back the layers of a society to see what’s there. It also speaks truth to power.

So that’s why combining the Golden Age of Murder and stand-up comedy in Ten Dead Comedians seemed like a such a natural pairing to me. After all, so much of the language around stand-up comedy concerns metaphors for violence. If you do really well in a stand-up set, you “killed,” you “slaughtered” the audience; if you did poorly you “bombed” or “died.” It’s a real kill-or-be-killed vibe in the comedy club, or maybe predator and prey. If you are as terrified by public speaking as most people are, this life-or-death language isn’t so surprising. The audience is fickle and unpredictable. It’s dangerous. It can turn on you at any moment, and you’ve got to be able to read the room and adjust your act accordingly, or your showbiz lifespan is not going to be very long. Maybe lion-taming is the better comparison.

So to a lonely Agatha Christie-style island in the Caribbean Sea come eight comedians, all of whom are familiar types, perhaps, but unique in their own ways.

There’s a retired late-night talk-show host and a Vegas insult comic who’s had one facelift too many. There’s an up-and-coming star who suddenly seems to be on every TV show and movie trailer at the same time, and a guy on the other side of the fame parabola, trending downward, who can barely get work as an improv instructor. There’s the prop comic with the sledgehammer everyone looks down on and the Hipper-Than-Thou alt-comedian who looks down on everyone else. There’s an “urban” road comic who’s lived out of hotels for the past eight years as he goes from club to club and a multi-millionaire “blue-collar” comedian who hasn’t seen the inside of a trailer park since the first Bush administration, despite his good ol’ boy shtick. They’re all in the Caribbean at the invitation of a ninth comedian—one of the most famous who ever lived, but whose career got sidetracked by his appearances in a lot of really bad comedies that found him married to a cat. His assistant, an up-and-coming comic who is the 10th in our cadre, leads them there, and acts as surprised as the rest of them when they find the island and its mansion deserted.

Although that’s not as surprising as when they start getting knocked off, one by one, in methods reminiscent of their individual acts, and they come to the slow, horrible realization that one of them is the killer.

What pleased me so much about writing a mystery was being able to explore and investigate the lives and motivations of folks who do stand-up comedy, from various generations, economic backgrounds, races, genders, sexual orientations, and widely disparate success levels. The people who brave hostile crowds, bad weather, crummy food, living out of hotel rooms, and bombing—and one guy who literally bombs on stage … sorry, that’s a spoiler. That is what mysteries can do that other genres can’t. They let you peel back those layers to see the beating heart underneath. I wanted to see my fictional comics put their humor skills to use in their own self-defense, as I did back in that Chagrin Falls schoolyard—though a bit more literally than I did.

And in doing so I was able to marry two of the great loves of my life—the spoken word, in the form of stand-up comedy, and the written word, in the form of the novel—into one.

The feeling was not unlike the solution to a murder mystery, or like the punch line to a joke:

It felt both inevitable and surprising at the same time.

* * *

Click here to enjoy a short excerpt from Ten Dead Comedians.