Sunday, June 28, 2015

Writers Born Today - Eric Ambler

It's the birthday of Eric Ambler, born June 28, 1909 in London. Both of his parents worked as entertainers and this eventually led him to begin writing plays, despite an educational background in engineering.

As a writer he elevated the spy novel to an art form that went far beyond the early novels of John Buchan (The 39 Steps) with their chase scenes. But like Buchan, Ambler's hero was often an amateur caught in a web of espionage.

His first novel was actually a parody of the traditional spy thriller. Despite this (or perhaps because of it) The Dark Frontier received good reviews. Prophetically, it had a plot involving the theft of atomic secrets.  He wrote four more spy novels in the next three years, including the one that most consider his masterpiece, A Coffin For Dimitrios.

Many of his novels feature individuals fleeing between countries that appear and disappear during times of war, or refugees who find themselves without a country at all...scenes that are still familiar today in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine.

Ambler enlisted in the army when World War II started. The recruiter, when he learned that Ambler was a novelist, asked "But is there anything you can actually do?"

There was. He signed up with the army film unit and wrote scripts for propaganda films, encountering along the way David Niven, John Houston and Humphrey Bogart.

After the war he worked in Hollywood for a while, and continued to write spy thrillers. But the idea of a naive or hapless individual falling into the middle of a spy plot or den of secret agents was getting harder to sell as the Cold War deepened. Spy work was becoming more complex and professional espionage was usually being handled by...professionals.

Ambler's greatest legacy is the enormous influence he had on other writers. Graham Greene and John le Carre both praised and tried to exceed his intelligent writing with their own thrillers. Le Carre referred to Ambler's novels as "the well into which everybody had dipped."

He also brought the spy thriller out of the gutter and into the home of millions of grateful readers.

''Dorothy Sayers had taken the detective story and made it literate. Why shouldn't I do the same with spies?''
                                                                  - Eric Ambler



Friday, June 26, 2015

Mystery History - Peter Lorre Born Today

It's the birthday of actor Peter Lorre, born June 26, 1904 in Slovakia. His real name was László Löwenstein, but a stage manager changed it to Peter Lorre. He started his film career in Germany, where Fritz Lang cast him as a serial killer in the movie M. The film was an instant success and it propelled Lorre to stardom. The fame had a drawback. Lorre would be forever cast as a criminal type. Needless to say, he made the most of it.

After the Nazis came to power, he left Germany and headed to the United States. Resourceful and determined, he was cast in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much even though he could barely speak English (he convinced the director that he was fluent in the language). He played a killer again in Stranger On The Third Floor, one of the first movies now considered as film noir.

After numerous B movies, including a stint as Charlie Chan, he was paired with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. These performances, which featured his charm as well as his sinister side, would help cement his reputation as a genius actor.

"Do you think we should drive a stake through his heart, just in case?"

              - Peter Lorre, speaking to Vincent Price at the funeral of Bela Lugosi

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Writers Born Today - Celia Fremlin


It's the birthday of Celia Fremlin, born June 20, 1914 in London. She graduated from Oxford but worked as a domestic servant and in a war factory during her youth.  She used these experiences when she began writing. Her first book, The Seven Chars of Chelsea, observed the relationship between a mistress and servant.

Her marriage and experience raising three children found its way into her first published novel, The Hours Before Dawn. A young housewife with a newborn faces not only depression but a series of eerie occurrences that leave the reader wondering about her sanity and her safety. It won the Edgar Award in 1960 for Best Mystery Novel. Alfred Hitchcock used the novel as the basis of one of his episodes in season one of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour, titled The Lonely Hours.

Fremlin went on to write 15 more novels and numerous short stories, many of which address the "domestic suspense" with which she is now associated.

Her reputation and interest in her work has surged in recent years thanks in large part to editor and mystery critic Sarah Weinman, who included in her anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives one of Fremlin's stories, A Case of Maximum Need.

Faber & Faber of England is also in the process of reprinting her novels, which should help introduce this writer to modern mystery fans. It's long overdue.


"The best writing is, and always has been, squeezed out somehow from the turmoil of a demanding and absorbing life -- happy or miserable, in sickness or in health, loved or hated -- it doesn't matter, so long as you are right there, in the thick of it."

                      - Celia Fremlin


Thursday, June 18, 2015

Writers Born Today - Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

It's the birthday of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, born June 18, 1889 in Brooklyn, New York. She was educated at Miss Whitcombe's and other proper schools for ladies, and began her writing career penning romance novels. Her husband was a British diplomat.

Based only on this, it would be hard to foresee a time when Raymond Chandler would call her "the top suspense writer of them all." But at a time when mystery writing was dominated by men, she helped create noir fiction with her mystery and suspense novels.

Psychological suspense was her strength, and she displayed it best in her novel The Blank Wall (one of Chandler's favorites). The tale of a mother trying to protect her teenage daughter from a lecher who later turns up dead is still read today, and thankfully available in a Kindle edition. It's been made into a movie on two occasions, first in 1949, The Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett, and again in 2001, The Deep End with Tilda Swinton.

The Blank Wall is included in the Library of America's upcoming fall release, Women Crime Writers, edited by Sarah Weinman.

Ms. Holding also has a story in Weinman's collection of domestic suspense stories, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, which was well received when it was published in 2013.


"Before anybody had ever heard of ‘pyschological novels of suspense’ Elisabeth Sanxay Holding was writing them, and brilliantly."

                                                                                               - Anthony Boucher

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nobody's Child Should Be On Everybody's Bookshelf

You shouldn't read Nobody's Child, the latest Georgia Davis P.I. mystery by Libby Fischer Hellman, just because it's a finalist for both the Daphne du Maurier Award AND the Shamus Award. Or because she sets her crime fiction in exotic locales that stretch from Persia, to the Caribbean, and to the cold, hard streets of Chicago. Or because she's a best-selling author.

You should read it because it's a damn good story. It's no cozy, but if you like to bite into a good P.I. novel that bites you back, this one's for you.

Something very odd is going on in Chicago. Yeah, I know...that's the Chicago way. But really, something's not right. Ex-cop and P. I. Georgia Davis is working a retail snatch and run theft case when she notices she has a tail. And when you're a private investigator who's paid to tail others, a tail on YOU is bad news. The next thing she knows, a dark SUV slows down, a rifle is thrust from an open window and shots are fired. A dead body has just hit the pavement, but it's not Georgia. It's her tail. Was it a mistake, or a warning?

Things get more mysterious when a cryptic phone call and scribbled letter lead Georgia to discover she may have a sister she never knew somewhere in Chicago and deep in trouble. The clues point to a human trafficking ring that involves not just prostitution, but something much more sinister. When people want to describe someone with absolutely no morals they often say he/she would sell their own mother. Think about that for a moment...then use your imagination. Then try not to lose your lunch. It's no surprise that the Russian mob may be involved in this organized crime ring from hell. They've developed a reputation for ruthlessness that make the Italian Mafia look like the Addams Family.

Georgia is one tough P.I. But she does have feelings. Somewhere along the way she starts seeing a cop, and it may be getting serious in the romance department. As she starts to emerge from her shell she has to decide if she can trust her new beau as she hunts for her sister. Georgia may have to get help from some legally shady characters if she's going to take on the Russian mob. To do that and come out alive (and out of jail), she's going to have to keep her love interest in the dark, which is exactly what she swore off doing.

What's a hard-nosed P.I searching for her sister in a tough crime town and facing a tough heartless crime mob to do? Whatever she has to, that's what.

Libby is fast becoming the go-to gun moll of noir crime fiction in the mid-west, if not the nation. Pickup a copy of Nobody's Child and you'll soon see why.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Writers Born Today - Dorothy L Sayers

It's the birthday of English crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, born June 13, 1893 in Oxford, England. She was the daughter of a schoolmaster, so it's no surprise that she won a scholarship to college and graduated with honors. Her first job was in an advertising agency. For a while she wrote mostly ads for mustard. She invented a jingle for Guinness that is still known today.

If he can say as you can
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do

Her first published work was a book of poetry, released in 1916. But by 1923, she had published a novel, Whose Body. It was the first to feature amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, but not the last. He would appear in ten more novels and two collections of stories.

Her detective novels were popular with the public, but not always with the critics. The infamous Edmund Wilson panned her detective novels. But then again, he also panned J.R.R Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and mystery writing in general. Critic Sean Latham defended Ms. Sayers, saying "Wilson chooses arrogant condescension over serious critical consideration" and added "Sayers's primary crime lay in her attempt to transform the detective novel into something other than an ephemeral bit of popular culture".

Her mystery novels sold so well that by 1936 she was financially secure. She continued to write for the stage, and her pen was rarely silent. With her knowledge of languages, she even translated works from medieval French and taught herself Italian so she could translate Dante's Divine ComedyThis was her proudest achievement.  It's still in print.

Of course her detective novels are also still read today and, along with Agatha Christie, she created the standard by which the modern "cozy" is judged by millions of readers.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Writers Born Today - Tess Gerritsen

It's the birthday of writer Tess Gerritsen, born June 12, 1953 in San Diego.  She wanted to be a writer from a young age, but her father "like Chinese dads all over the world," had other ideas. She studied medicine at the University of California after graduating from Stanford and received her medical degree in 1979. She practiced medicine in Hawaii, but the dream of writing never left. While on maternity leave she began writing and submitted a story to Honolulu's statewide fiction contest. She won first prize. Her first novel was published in 1987, a romantic thriller titled Call After Midnight.

She isn't the first physician to pursue a medical career...Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robin Cook have also switched from the stethoscope to the pen. Once she switched from romance to medical thrillers (a choice her agent applauded considering Tess's background) her career really took off. 

Some of the story lines were actually inspired by her reader fans. One suggested that Tess write about what really interested her, namely "serial killers and twisted sex." Asked what she did for a living, the reader replied, "I teach third grade." Although surprised, Tess realized there was a market for this type of thriller. The idea became the novel The Surgeon.


My favorite Tess Gerristsen novel revolves around a desperate victim of human trafficking, a plot line that led to Vanish, one of the best thrillers I have ever read. It was nominated for an Edgar and a Macavity Award, and won the Nero Award in 2006. 

This is the one she'll be remembered for, in my humble opinion (reading it is on my list of 101 Things To Do Before You Die - For Crime Writers).

Vanish was the fifth novel in the popular Rizzoli & Isles series, and if not for a twist in fate, it might never have been written. Jane Rizzoli made her first appearance as a secondary character in The Surgeon, and at the time Tess found her annoying. "When I introduced her, I thought she was going to die," Tess admitted in an interview. But the character grew on the writer. Eleven books and one very popular TV series later, Homicide Detective Jane Rizzoli is still with us, along with Medical Examiner Maura Isles.

In 2011 Tess appeared at the Melbourne Writers Festival with Michael Robotham where she discussed "Plotting The Perfect Crime". According to the conference host, Michael and Tess may be guilty of  being "legal criminals who describe, with disturbing precision, the very crimes they commit." Sounds like fun to me! Enjoy.