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July 23, 2015

Love and Death: The Heart-Pounding Suspense of Romance Novels

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I had an interesting conversation yesterday afternoon with a Swedish agent who has, somewhat to her surprise, become a big fan of romance novels. She’s in town for a Romance convention, and is particularly looking forward to the panels on writing; she says she hopes to learn how to help non-romance writers achieve in their books what good romance writers do – with such apparent ease – in theirs. And what’s that?

High stakes. The sense that THIS person is the only person in the world for you, that without THIS person you will be miserable forever or at least condemned to live a life that is thinner and emptier than the true life for which you are destined. And the further understanding that if you miss THIS train, if THAT letter is delivered, if Benjamin cannot stop the wedding, if Sam doesn’t play “As Time Goes By,” if Bridget doesn’t stumble out into the snow in her sneakers and terrible sweater, all will be lost. Those stakes create suspense; they make the reader care, sometimes care terribly, about the outcome of each event: They keep the reader reading.

In theory, mystery writers should have no trouble creating this kind of reader engagement. After all, the genre deals with life and death, with freedom and imprisonment — how much higher can the stakes get? And yet, when I’m reading manuscripts, what I find myself scribbling in the margin, so often, is “Make it more important!!!” It’s as though having decided to deal with the big, suspenseful issues – will the character live or die? – the writer figures the suspense is taken care of, and none of the plot-points along the way need to carry any of the burden.

Not true. I don’t mean to ding mystery in particular for this – we certainly don’t have a monopoly on the problem – but it’s the genre I know best. And I know that the agent is right: We could indeed benefit from taking a leaf from Romance. Make EVERY choice count. Modulate the mattering, of course – outside of a heavy-metal concert, there’s nothing duller than relentless top volume. But it might be useful to start by ratcheting it up. I suspect that suspense is the opposite of salt: It’s a lot easier to dial it back, if you’ve got too much going on, than it is to add savor and excitement to something that was bland from the git-go.

July 16, 2015

Inspector Barnaby on Screen and on the Page

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BY AODAOIN HATHAWAY

I make it a point never to watch a movie or TV show that is based on a book without having read the book first. It’s just one of my things. I’m a reader. And a stubborn one. I live in my imagination, and I don’t like to have a book I love sullied by someone else’s (lesser) interpretation of a character. I have also been known to avoid watching a show based on a favorite book in case it somehow does not live up to my inner imaginings, no matter the cajoling of friends or family.

So one evening last winter, when I was home alone and—shock, horror—with nothing new to read, I was flipping through Netflix looking for a replacement for good old Inspector Lewis. Because the current season was over, and I was in need of a murder-mystery fix. I love a good old-fashioned British crime solver. I always have. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes started it, and it continued with any and all Agatha Christies and Margery Allinghams and later some P.D. James, with a smattering of Colin Dexter and Ruth Redford thrown in. I’d read the “Morse” novels, which lead me to the Morse TV series, and to the spin-off, Lewis. So now, here I was, in search of something similar. And I stumbled across Midsomer Murders. I had a vague recollection of watching an episode or two with my parents at some point, and I recognized John Nettles, so I selected an episode and hit “start.” An hour and half later, I was hooked. Inspector Barnaby, his sidekick Sergeant Troy, Barnaby’s wife Joyce and their daughter Cully—I had already fallen for them and their world of idyllic English villages, scattered around an idyllic English countryside, marred only by the regular murder of two or three of its inhabitants. So began a binge-watch that lasted weeks. Midsomer Murders is one of the longest-running murder mystery shows on British television, and Netflix has most of the episodes. I got my husband involved, and together we spent hours with Barnaby as he tracked down murderers, suffered through his wife’s cooking, his daughter’s choice of career, and his sergeant’s driving, all with a good-humored commitment. When Sergeant Troy left the show, we were appalled, we could never grow to love Sergeant Scott. But we did, and when his replacement Sergeant Jones took over, well, it was an adjustment but one we made happily. Because we were part of Inspector Barnaby’s world, and if he said Sergeant Jones made the cut, we’d agree.

And then it was over. We’d watched all the episodes. The show continues, but without Barnaby, he’s retired. And I have no interest in watching it without him, Inspector Barnaby was the show for me. But towards the end of our viewing, I discovered that Barnaby did not spring forth fully formed from ITV. Inspector Barnaby had been a book first! Several books in fact. Some of the early episodes are based on these novels by Caroline Graham. And now I was faced with the flip side of my usual dilemma. How could I read the books when the actors and writers of Midsomer had so fixed these characters in my mind? But when I was given an opportunity to read them, I decided to go ahead with it. After all, I’d sat through movies of beloved books. I would do the same with this. I would want to like them, but I was fully prepared not to.

But I loved them. Graham’s Barnaby is not John Nettles’ Barnaby, but I think the two men would find a lot in common. Midsomer’s Sergeant Troy is not Graham’s Troy, but both will win you over in spite of being intensely annoying. Graham’s Cully is a tougher, less accessible version of TV Cully, while Joyce on screen remains the closest to Graham’s vision, but Barnaby’s family unit shines through as a beacon of stability to him on the roads he travels during his workday in both mediums.

Graham is a wonderful writer, and her Inspector Barnaby lives on the page in the tradition of the many great detectives who have gone before him. He’s a man you would want around if someone decided to whack a loved one on the head with a blunt instrument. I may even be more open to the possibility of watching a movie or show without having read the book because of Caroline Graham. And for that, my friends and family are extremely grateful.

July 1, 2015

Felonies of the Month: Felony & Mayhem’s First Catalog

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Companies love to celebrate significant anniversaries by bringing back, for a limited time only, some of the favorites of yesteryear. Hey, nostalgia sells! So this month we’d like to offer a sweet, sweet discount on some of the 12 titles with which we launched Felony & Mayhem, a cool ten years ago.

Only some? Yeah. The truth is, a few of the books on that original list are no longer available. One sold very well – so well that the author’s agent was able to interest a larger publisher, once our license had expired. A few just didn’t sell well enough to stick around. And one is so good that I hope to bring it back to life, and help it once again to find a new audience.

So what IS available? Some real goodies (what can I say? We picked well). Let’s start with The Killings at Badger’s Drift, the first in Caroline Graham’s deliciously witty “Inspector Barnaby” series, and the origin of the hugely popular “Midsomer Murders” series on Brit TV. You love murder in the little English village? Badger’s Drift will make you incredibly happy.

I’m sorry, did you say you liked delicious wit? Allow me to introduce you to the master. Nobody, nobody was wittier (or more delicious) than Edmund Crispin. And if you don’t believe me, ask the New York Times, which called The Case of the Gilded Fly “immensely witty and literate” when it was first published, in 1944. I’d say the only reason you might not want to read Crispin is if you are a writer yourself with an ugly competitive streak. Learning that Crispin wrote Fly, his debut novel, while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford may make you want to throw things.

For some reason, you have chosen not to pick up a copy of Gilded Fly. We understand: You’re a smart person (hey, you’re a Felony reader!), so you probably have the entire Crispin oeuvre in pristine 1970s (reissued) hardcover. But we’re still here to help you get your fix of deliciously witty: It’s Robert Barnard to the rescue. How I loved Barnard! He was one of the most happily malicious writers I’ve ever encountered. Like Crispin, he was particularly drawn to themes involving the performing arts, and Death On the High C’s is no exception; it’s a delightful evisceration of a provincial opera company and the yowling soprano who gets it in the neck. Expect to snort coffee out your nose.

Looking at this line-up, it’s clear that our fondness for funny was already well established. But even in infancy, we had more strings to our bow. Great espionage, for example, was an early favorite, as exemplified by The Cambridge Theorem, an absolute stunner. “Few can rival this extraordinary novel,” said the West Coast Review of Books, and we agree: the combo of a British cop obsessed with Willie Nelson, and a twisty spy-world puzzle that is long dead but won’t stay buried…it all makes for an irresistible read. In fact, I’m not going to resist: I’m gonna reread Theorem this weekend.

And ooh, ooh, something else I need to reread? Reginald Hill’s terrific Who Guards a Prince. Hill, of course, was best known for his “Dalziel and Pascoe” series, about a splendidly mismatched pair of Yorkshire cops. And though we publish a number of titles in that series, my Hill-ish heart in fact belongs to his standalones, which have all the irony, complex plots and singingly individual characters that “Dalziel” fans expect…but which wrap those marvelous characteristics in a mesh of conspiracy-theory that, to my taste, is the bacon of the literary world: It may be a cheap thrill, but it makes almost anything vastly more delicious. If you’re already a fan of Fat Andy, you owe it to yourself to discover the music that Hill was able to make in an entirely different context. (You’ve never met Fat Andy Dalziel? Run, don’t walk, and start with An Advancement of Learning. You’re welcome.) You’ll never look at Freemasons the same way again.

Perhaps you’ve got a taste for the exotic? Mysteries with foreign settings got very hot in the 1990s, and at the bookstore, one of our favorites to sell was Season of the Monsoon. Set amid the Technicolor chaos of Bollywood, Monsoon centers on George Sansi, a half-English, half-Indian cop who struggles with his own identity even as he tries to nail down the identity of a serial killer. Essentially, Monsoon is a straightforward, well-written noir tale, but the Bombay setting and Sansi’s half-caste, outsider status give the book a nuanced richness that goes well beyond the genre.

Last up: A book I didn’t think would go anywhere at all. My partner (at the bookstore) Jon Teta had been a great fan of Elizabeth Daly, and I thought there might be some other readers who shared his taste for this Agatha Christie-esque series set in the impossibly glamorous New York of the 1940s and 50s. I knew, though, that Daly’s name was not well known, and I didn’t really expect the books to sell very well. I published them, essentially, as an homage to Jon. (Indeed, Murders in Volume 2, which we started with, opens with a “publisher’s dedication.”)

Volume 2 is in fact the third in the series; we didn’t publish the first two titles for several years. Why did we open with Number 3? A couple of reasons. First is that the earlier books had in fact been in print until relatively recently, and we thought that fans of the series might already have bought copies. But more importantly, Miss Daly herself believed that the series properly began with Volume 2, that the first two books were by way of a rehearsal. Volume 2, by contrast, is opening night, with the curtain going up on the perfect gentleman-sleuth, the ideal book-related plot, and a city more glitteringly inviting than anywhere else in the world.