Saturday, July 8, 2017

Mystery History - Otto Penzler Born Today

It's the birthday of Otto Penzler, born July 8, 1942. A crime fiction editor, publisher, and the founder of  The Mysterious Press, Penzler has done more to promote the mystery genre than any other individual over the past 50 years. He is one of the world's leading experts of mystery and suspense fiction. The list of writers he has worked with reads like a Who's Who from the Best-Sellers list, and include Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Connelly and Sue Grafton (just to name a few). His accomplishments and their importance can hardly be exaggerated, but we will try.

Penzler studied English Literature in college, reading heavyweights like James Joyce. After graduation he started writing columns about sports. One of his first jobs paid the princely sum of thirty-seven dollars a week. He set aside five dollars of that to buy books. He loved to read, but he was through with Dickens and Melville. “I wanted to keep reading, but I didn’t want to hurt my head anymore. So I thought mysteries, I’ll read some mysteries.” He started with the early classics, such as The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. It was when he started reading Chandler and Hammett that he was struck by the revelation that mystery stories were not all sub-par, but could be real works of art.

He growing knowledge of the genre led to his co-authorship of the Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, a detailed catalog of mystery authors, books and films. It won an Edgar Award in 1977.

In 1979 he opened The Mysterious Bookshop, now the oldest and largest bookstore devoted to mystery, suspense and thrillers. His bookstore office is marked by crime scene tape.

He edits the annual edition of The Best American Mystery Stories. During his career he has edited dozens of anthologies, including my favorite, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.

His most important contribution was the founding of The Mysterious Press, a publisher of mystery and crime fiction. With it, he's published most of the best writers of mystery, thriller, and spy stories. Determined to not only publish the best writers in the genre, he wanted to put out quality books by using acid-free paper, ensuring that the books would last a long time. It was not for nothing that mystery novels were called pulps for so many years. They were often printed using the cheapest paper and could literally fall apart after just a few readings. Penzler challenged that reputation by treating his product as a quality work of literary art. He succeeded on both counts with quality authors and a quality book.

With the advent of electronic publishing, Penzler has jumped in with both feet (perhaps dipping in a toe first). Mysterious Press is working with publishers to bring the works of established writers like Donald Westlake, James Ellroy, and Christianna Brand to ebooks and audio release.

Penzler has won three Edgar Awards for Best Critical/Biographical Work from the Mystery Writers of America. He also won that organizations's Ellery Queen Award in 1994 and the Raven Award in 2003 for outstanding achievement in the mystery field.

At this moment he is probably working on another anthology that will delight us later this year, or next. Hopefully, he'll take some time to blow out the candles and have a slice of cake.

References -

Atlas Obscura
Fine Books Magazine
LA Review of Books
Los Angeles Times
Mysterious Press
Mystery Writers of America
New York Times

Friday, June 23, 2017

In The Dismal Swamp. Was It An Accident...Or Was It Murder?

Thomas and Mercer, has announced that my mystery novel, In The Dismal Swamp, is being promoted via their Select Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle books for $0.99 each!  Don't miss this chance to read it. Sale runs through June 30th.

Believable dialogue, an engaging hero, and lots of Virginia backcountry ambience suggest a strong series in the offing from this talented first novelist. -- Booklist

Friday, June 16, 2017

Writers Born Today - Alexandra Marinina

It's the birthday of Russian crime novelist Alexandra Marinina, born June 16, 1957 in Ukraine. Hers was a family of lawyers and she followed in those footsteps, earning her law degree in 1979. Her first novel, Confluence of Circumstances, was published in 1993. She studied criminal behavior in the Ministry of Internal Affairs as a police officer until 1998, when she turned to writing full time.

Most of her detective novels are considered cozies written in the traditional European method of the crime as a logical puzzle to be solved by intellect rather than brute force or physical prowess. Her protagonist is a female detective named Anastasia Kamenskaia. In describing her heroine, the author has compared her a "computer with two legs", and a "gray mouse" unconcerned with makeup or appearance. He only passion is to solve crimes. Coffee and cigarettes are her constant fuel, and some of her colleagues describe her in unflattering terms. "She just sits in her warm office sipping coffee and pretends she's the great Nero Wolfe!". But she is extremely skilled at her work.

Alexandra began to write in 1991 out of boredom. Her knowledge of criminal behavior found an outlet that was far more interesting than the official reports she produced for the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The editors at Militsia, a magazine produced by the Ministry, published one of her first stories and encouraged her writing.

Called the "Russian Agatha Christie", she has won several awards and was named Writer of the Year in 1998 by the Moscow International Book Fair. Her books have sold more than 45 million copies and have been translated into 20 languages. Sadly, there are almost no English translations of her detective novels.

References -

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Soak - They Don't Write 'Em Like This Anymore

Hobbs is a career criminal and a dying breed, much like the classic heist story portrayed in Patrick McLean's latest novel, The Soak. A master at the game of robbery and with a long string of successful jobs behind him, Hobbs is considering retirement. He's approaches every job as a professional, using methodical planning and patience to make the score. His skill at taking out armored cars is so good, the companies have changed their procedures just to deal with him.

But the world has changed. People and money move too fast in today's world. Strictly a blue collar criminal, he doesn't have the computer skills to steal electronically. Hobbs doesn't even own a smart phone. Perhaps it's time to hang up the six shooter and settle into a life of retirement, like the poor saps he sees punching a time clock. He knows it's inevitable, but it's killing him.

Then along comes Alan. He's everything Hobbs isn't. Computer savvy, a millennial with fine clothes, a college education and youth. Especially youth. Hobbs can't decide if he wants to take him on for one final heist or punch him in the mouth. But he sees something in the young lad, and takes him under his wing. He begins to teach Alan everything he knows about pulling a big heist. And he learns a few having a computer wiz on your crew can be a good thing. After all, it's Alan who brings Hobbs the idea for hitting an armored car along the western pennisula of Florida, where the isolated roads and far flung towns present plenty of spots to ambush 23 millions dollars carried by a pair of low paid rent-a-cops.

Not everything goes as planned however. It's one thing to ambush an amorned car (and when it goes down, it's a thing of beauty to watch). It's another thing to get away with the loot and Hobbs has not only an FBI agent with questionable ethics on his tail, but a Category 2 hurricane bearing down on Florida at just the wrong time. If Hobbs can pull this off, he may just be able to retire for good.

You'll be rooting for Hobbs the more you read, and this book is a great read to the end. The writing isn't flowery but it packs a punch:

"Mazerick and the uniform turned to see a woman in a dark-blue suit. Mazerick immediately thought, Naughty librarian. And a split second after that, he thought, There goes that sensitivity training the city paid for...Agent Wellsley smiled. Mazerick liked it."

You'll like it too. The Soak, I mean. What did you think I was referring to, the Naughty librarian? You've got a dirty mind. Enjoy it.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Mystery History - D.O.A. Released 65 Years Ago Today

It was April 30, 1950 when moviegoers got their first look at the classic noir film D.O.A. It's opening scene was one of the most original in motion picture history. An exhausted man walks into a police station to report a murder.

"Who was murdered?" the detective asks.

"I was," Frank Bigelow declares.

This begins the story, told in flashback, of Frank Bigelow. An accountant and notary public, he learns from a doctor that he's been poisoned with a slow acting chemical for which there is no andidote. He spends the next 24 hours trying to learn why he was poisoned. Along the way he runs into an assortment of crooks and killers as he seeks to learn who has murdered him.

Bigelow was played by Edmund O'Brien, a skilled actor who was a fixture in the 40s and 50s on film. He appeared in several crime dramas, including The Killers, White Heat and The Hitch-Hiker. His performance in D.O.A. got good reviews, with one critic commenting that Frank Bigelow was more engaged in his life during his frantic search for the truth than at anytime in his life. In adddition to the plot, the dark lighting and scenery lent the film its noir mood.

One of the movie's chase scenes gained part of it's realism from the fact that the film crew failed to get the necessary permits to shoot the scene. The bewildered crowd wasn't acting...they genuinely had no idea what was going on as Edmund O'Brien crashed through the streets.

The suspenseful soundtrack was written by Dimitri Tiomkin, who also produced the music for Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder and The Thing From Another World.

The film has fallen into the public domain, and can be readily accessed on several websites, including Youtube.

"I seldom get very far away from crime. I've found it pays . . . I tried non-crime films like Another Part of the Forest . . . good picture, good cast, but no good at the box office . . . But you just put a gun in your hands and run through the streets during cops and robbers and you're all set."

                                                                                         - Edmund O'Brien

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Little Men Creep Up On You When Night Comes

Megan Abbott has already proven herself to be a skilled mistress of the crime novel, winning the Edgar and Barry Awards for Queenpin and garnering numerous nominations for her growing body of work. But her talent extends to the short story as well, where every word counts. The Little Men won the Anthony and Macavity Awards for Best Short Story, and it's easy to see why once you start reading. If Megan were a baseball player, she'd be a switch hitter, and on the field, she'd play the infield from first to third with the same golden glove talent.

In The Little Men, she creates a portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s that peeks behind the glamour and shows us the world of would be stars and starlets who never quite make the cut. It's a sad story, but more than that, it's a scary story. No, strike's terrifying.

Penny followed her dreams to Hollywood, and now survives as a makeup artist. It's not the same as being in front of the camera, but it keeps her in the game. When she finds a beautiful bungalow nestled in a small canyon, she immediately falls in love with it. But a secret is waiting. It emerges in the quiet hours, when she sees the little men, and hears the tap, tap, tap of their feet. She thinks it must be mice, but these mice walk upright.

Her neighbors, two elderly men, entertain her with stories of the previous tenant, a bookseller named Larry who captured the heart of the landlady, and who, with his death, haunts her dreams. Soon, Penny is caught in the same dreams, dreams that take a nightmarish turn and she awakes some nights gasping for breath. Did Larry really gas himself in the oven, driven mad by his tiny visitors, or did the landlady seek revenge for a failed love affair? The little men continue to stalk her, and she dives deeper into a dangerous mystery whose answers elude the reader until the very last sentence.

In a different era Megan Abbott would be writing scripts for The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, frightening small children and sensitive adults. In their beds, they'd pull the covers up to their necks and listen in terror for the patter of tiny feet in the dark corners. But Serling and Hitchcock are gone, and we've got her on our team. No trades allowed.

Eat your heart out, Alfred.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Big Mango Is A Juicy Thriller. Take a Bite!

It's always a pleasure to discover a author, especially when they write a story that makes you wish you were young again and ready to take on the world. After stumbling across and reading the debut novel of Jake Needham, I thought to myself, "What took me so long to find this guy?".

The Big Mango asks a question that every top adventure story has asked since the days of Professor Challenger. What would you do if given the chance to change your life and search for lost treasure? Would you grab it with both hands?

If you crave a little excitement, the answer is...Hell, Yeah! And that's exactly what this story's hero, Eddie Dare, does when he is asked to join the hunt for $400 million dollars that disappeared days before the collapse of South Vietnam. And why not? Twice divorced, with a distant son and a law practice that just pays the bills, he's doing okay. It's just enough anymore. His closest friend, a Native American nick-named Winnebago, thinks he's crazy. But with nothing to else to bind him down, he joins Eddie, if only to watch his back. Soon the odd pair find themselves in Bangkok, Thailand thanks to the efforts of a mysterious stranger and a finder's fee of a hundred grand.

The last man who had any inkling of where the missing money went is an old army buddy named Harry Austin. All three men served together in Vietnam, and all three hauled the money to safety in Thailand, though only Harry knew at the time what was really in those crates. Now Harry's dead, recently killed in an accident just outside a Thai brothel. It's up to Eddie to track down the money, though he hasn't a clue. He starts with an expat newspaper reporter named Bar who's made Bangkok his home. As this trio fumble around, a number of interested parties join the search, including a DEA agent and Harry's widow. It's hard to know who to trust because almost everyone in Thailand is not who they appear at first glance. Friend or foe? Sometimes it's simple. If a motorcycle pulls alongside and the rider whips out an envelope and hands it to you, they might be a friend. If they pull out a gun and start shooting...well, you'll figure it out.

This wild romp through the streets and back alleys of Bangkok reeks of danger, spice, sex, and something else that maybe should have been cleaned up and tossed in the trash. But it's a blast, sometimes literally, and you'll want to join in the fun. C'mon...don't you feel lucky? With Jake Needham as your guide, what could possibly go wrong?

Just remember. If a motorcycle ever pulls alongside you at a stoplight in Thailand, and the rider reaches for something hidden, prepare to duck! Now get up off your backside. If you can't find a lost treasure to hunt for, pick up The Big Mango. It's a hidden gem, and you'll get a real kick out of it.