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Edition and Subtraction

Ngaio_Marsh_by_Henry_Herbert_Clifford_ca_1935

The Amazon review went something like this:

I am outraged, and I am never going to buy from Felony & Mayhem Press again! They had the nerve to edit Ngaio Marsh, one of the most beloved writers in the history of mystery fiction, and actually remove entire blocks of text! Avoid this publishing house.

Not surprisingly, our hearts hit the floor. We knew we had not deliberately changed a word, not an apostrophe, of Dame Ngaio’s prose. But maybe gremlins had snuck in during the night? And, ummmm…deleted stuff? This is publishing: Stranger things have happened.

Quick like bunnies, we checked the digital edition against the tattered pages of the book from which we had taken the text. And they were…identical. Was the reviewer crazy? Were we crazy?

No. We were American. And so was the edition from which we had taken our text. But that American edition, we soon realized, was in fact somewhat different from the earlier, British edition. And it was that British edition to which the Amazon reviewer was referring. She was hollering at us, but it was actually some long-gone publisher from the 1940s to whom her anger was really directed.

Was her anger justified? The truth is, when a book goes into a new edition, text is often changed. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of correcting proofreading errors that weren’t caught on the first go-round.Then there’s the fact that “vintage” novels (written prior to the 1960s, say) frequently contain language that contemporary readers would find offensive in the extreme. That might be ok if the speaker is a villain, but what happens when the protagonist, a character you’re supposed to like, casually mentions that he was talking to a ________ earlier in the day, or that he bought something from a __________, or that the butler is a ______ _______ _______? What do you do then?

If you’re us, you change the language. To our mind, the sanctity of Ngaio Marsh’s prose – or Margery Allingham’s, or Elizabeth Daly’s, or any of the old-school writers we publish – is not worth stopping a reader dead in her tracks, unable to enjoy the rest of the book. We work hard to come up with phrasing that preserves the meaning of the original and the sense of period, but is less likely to cause the reader to throw the book across the room. (There is, of course, an argument that the original, repellent language should be preserved, as a sort of museum-exhibit of the bad old days. To our mind, this argument has some merit, but is outweighed by our belief that few readers pick up our books as historical documents; they are seeking entertainment, and we seek to provide it with as few impediments as possible.)

The switch from a British to an American edition often gives rise to editorial changes – U.S. publishers routinely dump lifts and lorries in favor of elevators and trucks, for instance, or clarify slang. I can’t swear to it, but I suspect a similar system prevails in the other direction.

And then we come to the world of more subjective changes. We made a big one, when Felony was still wearing training wheels. We published a book called Missing, by Karin Alvtegen, in a translation (from the original Swedish) that had first been published in the UK. But before we went to press, I emailed the author. As published, the book opened with a crazed religious rant in the mind of a serial killer, followed by a scene in which the novel’s protagonist, a homeless woman, pulls an intriguing scam in the dining room of a fancy hotel.

I wanted to change the order of those two scenes.

At first, Ms. Alvtegen was very distressed: Why did I ask for such a change? Well, I thought the hotel-scene was a much stronger opener. Additionally, the success of The Da Vinci Code had flooded the market with Vatican thrillers, many of them featuring crazed religious serial killers. I didn’t want this subtle, quirky Swedish mystery lumped in with the Catholic Conspiracy brigade.

With some reluctance, Ms. Alvtegen agreed to the change. And a few months later, the book was shortlisted for an Edgar award for Best Mystery of the Year. Coincidence? I couldn’t possibly comment.

At the moment, we’re dealing with a challenge that requires us to make almost all the sorts of changes I’ve discussed – or at least consider them. We’re getting ready to print the last four novels in the Marsh line-up, and in one of them the differences between the various editions are the most significant we’ve come across. Our default decision is to use the earliest edition (which is typically, though not always, the British), but in this instance, we felt that the editors of the first American editions had made some very worthwhile changes. Some scenes had been made clearer, some transitions smoother. Did we really want to discard these worthwhile changes? We did not. So we made the unusual decision to go with the American edition.

And that’s when things got interesting.

As we went through the book, we discovered that the original American editors hadn’t only made additions: They had deleted text as well. And after going through both versions with a couple of fine-tooth combs, we determined that, really, we liked some of the deleted scenes, thank you very much. So we restored some of the British text.

The result is essentially a first: A Ngiao Marsh novel that, we believe, combines the best of the original British and the original American edits. Is this the definitive version? Absolutely not, but it is our stab at it.

We would like nothing more than for you to take your own stabs (hey, we publish murder mysteries; we’re all about the stabbing). Compare our version to the crumbling paperbacks that we know are on your shelves, and tell us which text you like better and why. One of the cool things about the new publishing technology is that it is now relatively simple to make changes, even after a book has been printed. So give us some great changes – with some great reasoning to back things up – and we’ll not only make them, we’ll acknowledge your contribution.

Which book exactly are we talking about? We’ll dribble some clues out in the next few weeks. But if you want the answer, you’ll have to do some sleuthing. We think you might have a knack for that.

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Everyone deserves a valentine

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The iconography of Valentine’s Day tends to be pretty limited in scope. Absent some Very Special Episode, we’re almost always talking about young lovers, attractive and able-bodied, heterosexual and of the Caucasian persuasion.

Well, boo to that. Everyone deserves a valentine, and love takes many forms. We’re therefore offering a sale on a hatful that have some splendid sleuthing, of course, but also some true love. Sometimes the lovers are young and lovely, and sometimes they’ve got the soft bodies of folks well into middle age. And sometimes they’re not lovers at all, but the friends that can mean even more.

So give a little bookish joy this Valentine’s Day to someone you love. And if you can’t be with a one you love, honey, love the one you’re with – even if that’s the one you see in the mirror.

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Nancy, We Hardly Knew Ye: Nancy Drew revised

TheSecretAtShadowRanch

Generalizations are the hobgoblins of little minds, but nevertheless, I’ll make one: The vast majority of mystery readers cut their sleuthing-teeth on either Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes or the Nancy Drew series, the first volume of which – The Secret of the Old Clock – was published in 1930 (making Nancy – with her roadster and her neat bob – the very model of the Golden Age heroine). True Nancy-ites (Drew-ids?) know that, beginning in about 1959, the series was rewritten, ostensibly to get rid of racist language and bring the books “up to date.” Unfortunately, “up to date” went hand in hand with “dumbed down”; the language of the rewritten books is noticeably more simplistic and less nuanced.

Nor do the changes stop there. As Cara Nicoletti notes in her irresistible new collection of essays Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, the Nancy of the early editions is much less compulsively perfect, and considerably more approachable. But the weirdest change has to do with Nancy’s pal Bess, who makes her debut in Book 5 of the series, The Secret at Shadow Ranch. In the rewritten edition, Bess is introduced as “slightly plump,” and this description “precedes her name in nearly every sentence for the remainder of the book,” according to Nicoletti. Furthermore, she is forever being taunted about her weight, mostly by her skinny cousin George, who has morphed from a goofy tomboy in the original version into a bona-fide Mean Girl. George is “always drawing attention to how much Bess has eaten,” says Nicoletti, “while Nancy giggles demurely in the background.” “Eating is really a very fattening hobby, dear cousin,” smirks George, smugly sipping a soft drink while Bess prepares to dive into a chocolate sundae with nuts.

But, says Nicoletti, “in the original Secret at Shadow Ranch, there is no mention of Bess’s weight.” In fact, she is described as being “noted for always doing the correct thing” and for being prettier and better dressed than George. Nicoletti’s literary analysis, throughout the essays, is clever and engaging, but she doesn’t offer any theories as to why a virulent vein of fat-shaming should have been inserted into a book that is otherwise about three teenage girls solving crimes. On the other hand, she does offer a swell-looking recipe for a double-chocolate sundae with nuts, and many readers will regard that as more than a fair trade-off.

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The Best Present is Books: The Felonious Christmas Sale

books_in_bow

“The best appetizer is herring,” goes one famous Russian aphorism. Maybe yes, maybe no, but we’re quite certain of this: The best present is books. Always in style, never the wrong size, they comfort the melancholy, inspire the despairing, provide a chuckle, a diversion, a window onto another time, another place, another life, another mind.

We’re so certain that books are where it’s at (baby!) that we’ve come up with a holiday offer: Give some Felony books to a friend, and we’ll give one to you. That’s a fancy way of saying we’re running a buy-three-get-one-free offer, good through the end of the year. And of course, if you want to keep all four for yourself, we won’t tell. At the same time, though, we are kinda serious about the “give them as presents” thing. The conversation that begins with a book – “Do you think he knew? Should she have sent that letter? Why did she leave so quickly? I can’t believe he was stupid enough to marry her” – makes that book the gift that keeps on giving. So at this season of good will, we hope you’ll consider giving one.

Need help deciding? Shoot us an email, twit us a tweet, or drop us a line on Facebook: WE LOVE TO MAKE SUGGESTIONS.

(Enter coupon code HOLIDAY443 to take advantage of the Christmas sale.)

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Last day of our Hanukkah special

Elephants in thye Distance, by Daniel Stashtower

Miracles come with time-limits, right? Or they wouldn’t be miracles, they’d just be the New Normal. So our Miraculous Hanukkah Sale must, sadly, come to an end. The sale-candles will continue to burn until 5pm Eastern time, after which they go POOF! blown out for another year. (To get in on all that miraculous fun, check the slider above.)

But but but, you may say, I don’t CELEBRATE Hanukkah! (You have something against crispylicious fried potatoes?) Where, O where, is the miracle for the Rest Of Us?

Patience, grasshopper. Have we ever let you down? In the meantime, have some of that mulled wine. You know, for quality-control purposes.

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A Felonious Hanukkah: Eight Days of Light (Reading)

menorah

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, an eight-day commemoration of a miracle that, according to tradition, occurred in about 160 B.C. Enemies vanquished (for the moment), the Israelites turned their attention to the Temple, which had been defiled by the bad guys. An important element of the Temple was the “eternal light,” a lamp that burned sacred oil and was never permitted to go out. The baddies, of course, had put it out, and when the Jews re-lit the lamp, they discovered they had only one day’s worth of oil. Sanctification doesn’t happen overnight, and acquiring a fresh supply of sacred oil would require eight days. Miraculously, that single day’s supply of oil lasted for the necessary eight, and today Jews around the world celebrate the “festival of lights” by lighting special candles (because: eternal light) and eating fried things (because: oil) (also because: delicious).

From a religious standpoint, Hanukkah is actually a fairly minor holiday, but its association with both glittering lights and special foods, combined with its tendency to be celebrated in December, has framed it, in the popular imagination, as the “Jewish Christmas.” As a result, for the past 100 years or so, the Hanukkah celebration (in the USA at least) has featured not only sparkly candles and delicious fried things, but also presents, making it pretty much a trifecta of terrific. And just to gild the lily (and give Jewish kids something to brag about to their gentile friends), custom dictates that presents are given on every single one of the celebratory eight days.

Eight days of presents AND potato pancakes! It’s difficult to imagine a better combination. And yet, for me, the most important part of Hanukkah is the candles. It’s not because I’m particularly religious – though hey, thumbs up for the eternal light of faith, mercy, truth, whatever you’d like it to embody – but because I need light to read. The one-day lamp that burned for eight days? I’m all for the rededication of the Temple, but the really critical part? EIGHT DAYS’ WORTH OF READING.

Of course, reading has two requirements. We’ve already covered light; here are the books. For the eight days of Hanukkah, we’ll be running some especially tasty discounts on some of our favorite books. Get with tradition (albeit a fairly recent one) and give the books as presents, or give’em to your own self. Just don’t dribble them up with pancake greasies. Check in daily to see the featured title.

Ok, and about those pancakes. First of all, if you are the Pancake Maker, then ABSOLUTELY get the books for yourself: He or she who grates the potatoes and stands over a skillet full of hot fat is more than entitled to some righteous reading matter. And second, if you are craving some latkes and have no family tradition in that department? I’d recommend any recipe (and they’re widely available online) by Joan Nathan: She’s never steered me wrong.

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

kisses_in_the_rain

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.

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

FM-catalog-spring-05-1

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.

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