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 -

https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/IFR/article/view/7802/8859

https://www.lecourrierderussie.com/culture/2016/06/alexandra-marinina-crime/

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 things...like 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 that...it'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.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Debt To Pay Is Worth Every Penny

When the author of a popular series dies, the series sometimes dies with them. Such might have been the case with Robert B. Parker and the popular Jesse Stone novels. But the series has been taken over by Reed Farrel Coleman, a dues-paying crime writer with multiple awards in the genre.

Still, it's difficult to continue a series when another writer has to duplicate the flavor of a series for fans who have come to expect a certain style. But Coleman pulls it off with his latest contribution in the Jesse Stone saga, Debt To Pay. The publisher has made an excellent choice.

Jesse Stone is facing major changes in his life. He's fallen in love, and his ex-wife is getting remarried. Jenn wants him at her wedding, a sort of final farewell to their relationship. Jesse declines, even after a friendly phone call from Hale Hunsicker, Jenn's fiancee, which makes it clear that he would be welcome. But Jesse changes his mind when Mr. Peepers, a sick killer with a taste for revenge sends him a picture of Jenn with a veiled threat. Mr. Peepers was once shot by Luther 'Suitcase' Simpson, one of Stone's officers and Peepers blames Jesse, among others, for it. He's a master of disguise who appears out of the mist like a phantom and subdues his target before they even realize they're in danger. He then delights in torturing his prey before killing them, sometimes with the victim begging to be put out of their misery.

With some clever detective work, Jesse discovers that Mr. Peepers may have already dispatched one of the men on his hit list; Gino Fish, a local mobster who originally put Stone in contact with Mr. Peepers. But the stress of protecting Jenn and watching his own back causes Jesse to begin drinking again. Jesse has plenty of allies in his hunt, including Hale Hunsicker, a wealthy real estate developer with a first rate security team, Stone's girlfriend Diana (an FBI agent) and Detective Healy, from the Boston Police department. Will it be enough? No one is safe with Peepers on the loose, and as each person close to Jesse falls under the gaze of this psychopath, the reader is left with the impression that anyone one of them could be the next victim.

Parker's straightforward style keeps the story going at a good clip. Readers will enjoy the chase. Coleman gives enough backstory to satisfy a new reader of the series without bogging down the pace for those familiar with the series. Pick up this novel and start reading. If you don't have the cash, put it on your credit card. It's a small debt to pay, and worth every penny.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

Writers Born Today - Anthony Burgess

One hundred years ago today, Anthony Burgess was born in Manchester, England. His grim futuristic novel, A Clockwork Orange is the book that made him famous and for which he is best remembered. Ironically, Burgess thought this novel somewhat inconsequential compared to the rest of his work, which included over thirty novels, numerous volumes of poetry (he won the Governor's Poetry Award for oneand over 200 musical scores. At age 18, having taught himself to play the piano, he composed his first symphony.

He came from a family of entertainers; his mother a dancer, his father a piano player. Tragedy struck early in life. He lost his sister and mother in the Spanish flu epidemic that swept the globe in 1918. He was a loner in school, but good grades got him into college. A voracious reader, he traveled as a teenager to France to buy a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, which had been banned in England, and smuggled it past customs officials. After serving in the army in World War II he began to teach, eventually moving with his wife to Malaysia where he taught for several years, all the while writing. He fueled his tremendous output with massive amounts of gin and 3 to 4 packs of cigarettes a day. His first published novel was released in 1956. Time For A Tiger, was set in Malaysia and became part of a trilogy he wrote that examined the colonial breakdown of the British Empire and it's effects on the indigenous people.

As a literary critic, Burgess produced well regarded criticisms of some literary giants, including James Joyce, William Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence. But in many ways he was a comic writer, and not above poking fun at himself and others. He was once fired from a job as a reviewer at the Yorkshire Post after he reviewed one of his own books, Inside Mr. Enderby, published under the pen name Joseph Kell. The owners thought this was unethical, but Burgess actually gave the book a bad review, calling it a laughing stock and saying it was "full of bowel-blasts and flatulent borborygms, emetic meals...and halitosis". Some of his early novels with settings in Malaysia were banned by the country, in part because he gave insulting names to some of the cities. One city is called Kenching, which means "piss" in Malay.

Critics regard the novel Earthly Powers as his greatest work, and it was nominated for a Booker Award. Part parody, part fictional autobiography, it tells the narrator's life story in 82 chapters, one for each year of his life. It covers both World Wars, the Spanish pandemic, the rise of fascism in Europe and the fate of post-colonial Africa. There's even a reference to the Jonestown massacre in Guyana (in the novel the event takes place in California in the 1960s.)

In 1962 Burgess published A Clockwork Orange, using a slang language he invented called Nadsat. The book features a juvenile delinquent named Alex and his gang, who roam through a futuristic London creating mayhem and terror wherever they go. Alex evens beats members of his own gang, and after being abandoned by them, he is arrested. In prison he undergoes aversion therapy, a form of brainwashing, to cure him of his violent behavior. Released from prison, he finds himself scarred by the treatment. When he encounters some of his former victims and hoodlum friends the therapy renders him defenseless against their brutal revenge. Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones was an early admirer of the novel, and expressed an interest in playing the character of Alex, if a film were ever made. The film version did appear in 1971, produced by Stanley Kubrick. It starred not Jagger but Malcolm McDowell. Burgess gained fame and fortune when the movie became a hit and his book became an international best seller. But he thought the film misrepresented the novel, saying "the film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die." The American publication also left out the final chapter of the book, because it presented a more uplifting and hopeful outcome for Alex, and this was contradicted by the popular movie version. By 1986, Burgess had finally gotten the final chapter restored.

To learn more about Anthony Burgess, check out his interview with the Paris Review.

To watch a ballet whose score was written by Burgess in celebration of Shakespeare, watch the video below.



“The best first thing to do, when you’ve got a dead body and it’s your husband’s on the kitchen floor and you don’t know what to do about it, is to make yourself a good strong cup of tea.”

                                                        -
Anthony Burgess, from One Hand Clapping

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Writers Born Today - Pierre Boulle

It's the birthday of Pierre Boulle, born February 20, 1912 in Avignon, France. In a career that spanned nearly half a century he wrote more than two dozen novels and dozens of short stories. Two of his novels were made in epic films with instant name recognition, but almost know one remembers the author himself.

Boulle worked on a British rubber plantation in Malaysia during the 1930s. When World War II started, he became a secret agent working aginst the Japanese. After the war ended, he returned to France and began writing. Early in his career, he was so poor he was forced to live with his sister.

That changed with success. He used his wartime experiences to create his first best-selling novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The story was made into a popular film starring Alec Guinness, and won seven Oscars.

He later achieved even greater success with a 1963 science fiction novel unlike anything seen since the days of Jules Verne.  La Plan├Ęte des Singes was an international best seller that was made into an Oscar winning film in 1968, the first of seven movies based on the same book. The first English translation was called Monkey Planet, but we know it by it's American title - Planet of the Apes.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Writers Born Today - Ronald Knox

It's the birthday of Ronald Knox, born February 17, 1888 in Kibworth, England. Although he wrote detective novels, he was a priest first and foremost and wrote several religious texts. Among the most famous of these is a new translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek texts.  He also penned a guideline for crime fiction writers on how to practice their craft, titled The Ten Commandments For Detective Novelists.

Most of his detective novels featured a private investigator for the Indescribable Insurance Company, name Miles Bredon, whose job was to investigate suspicious insurance claims. His crime fiction is remembered best for its humor and wit, and the detailed descriptions of the local scenery. He once included a hint in his introduction to a story collection as to when the reader should try to solve the mystery.

His most famous novel is The Viaduct Murder. A classic from the golden age of detective fiction, it was included in The Haycraft-Queen Definitive Library of Detective-Crime-Mystery Fiction. First published in 1925, their is a paperback version and the novel is available on Kindle.

Knox was a contemporary of some of mystery fiction's most famous practitioners, including Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen. He was an early member of The Detection Club, a group of English detective novelists who met to discuss the craft and set rules for how their mysteries should be written. It was in this spirit that Robert Know composed his Ten Commandments, as a guide for his fellow members. Although somewhat dated by today's standards, and certainly politically incorrect, it still has a number of gems. From The Ronald Knox Society website:

CLUB RULES: The 10 Commandments for Detective Novelists

1.The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
7. The detective must not himself commit the crime.
8. The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Knox was a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote one of the earliest (and finest) works of critical analysis on Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective, called Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes.

For more about Ronald Know, check out the Ronald Knox Society of North America. You can also read a good analysis of his Ten Commandments at Classic Mystery Wordpress.