It’s my birthday too, yeah! Ok, no, it’s not: My birthday’s in February. But it is F&M’s birthday. Ten years ago, at a gratifyingly well-attended party in Greenwich Village, mere Felony was loosed upon the world. Our first “list,” the first season for which we were selling books, was Spring/Summer 2005. So we’re viewing this entire summer as our Tenth Anniversary. You can expect to see some special sales (we’d “roll back prices,” like they do in stores, but we haven’t actually raised our prices in ten years, so…..). And you can also expect blog posts just chock-a-block with witty, amusing, heartrending stories of Felony & Mayhem: The First Ten Years.
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I think sometimes there are two kinds of readers: Those who want to be captivated by a story, and those who want to spend time with a great storyteller. My mother, for instance, was firmly in the first camp. She could never understand why I often reread books, and particularly mysteries. “But you know who did it!” she would exclaim, and I would have to explain again that I just loved the way the author told it – loved his language, loved her jokes, loved his/her sense of pace, the quirky characters, the vivid settings, the larger questions brought to bear.
Orchestrated Death is very much a book for lovers of language. The plot…is dandy. A middle-aged, straight-arrow London cop investigates the murder of a young violinist, and finds himself forced to question a lot of the aspects of his life that he thought had long since been settled. But in truth, the great pleasure of this book – and it is a great pleasure – lies in the telling. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles writes like a wicked angel, and it’s her puns in particular that I love. I know, puns – groan, right? Not these. For starters, they only work if you hear them in an English accent. So channel your best “Downton Abbey” vowels, and get ready to giggle. Start with the kitty named Oedipus. Why? ‘Cause ee-da-puss-wot-lives-‘ere.
Classic detective fiction is so tedious. It’s all the same formula, over and over again, and then the Bad Guy gets captured, the world returns to Sunny Delight, and it’s all crumpets and plum jam for tea.
Not so fast. In the first place, O Beloved Hard-Boiled Fan, your own corner of the mystery world is rich in its own formulas, from the man of honor forced to walk the mean streets to the faithless broad and the bottle of Scotch in the drawer. And in the second place, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
First published in 1929, it came out during the heyday of the Golden Age, when that formula – the erudite, upper-class sleuth who views murder as a game, the comical members of the lower orders, the over-arching assumption that all will be returned to blissful order as soon as the one bad actor has been apprehended – did indeed dominate the genre. But Anthony Berkeley Cox (who also wrote as Francis Iles) was a smart fella, and with Poisoned Chocolates he both bows to the formula and sticks a (very polite) thumb in its eye.
Here for example is the upper-class milieu: A meeting of the ultra-exclusive Crime Circle, a group of (never more than) six toffs united in their belief that murder is the jolliest puzzle of all. And at their center is their newest member, Roger Sheringham, who has persuaded his friend Chief Inspector Moresby to present the Circle with the outline of an unsolved case. In a week’s time, Sheringham suggests, they will reconvene, and each member will explain how he or she would solve the case in question.
A week later, and all the members have indeed solved the case. The only problem: Each of them has fingered a different killer. The great fun in this novel lies in allowing oneself to be persuaded by a given theory, only to see that theory comprehensively demolished, and another set in its place. While The Poisoned Chocolates Case would indeed be a clever diversion for any reader, it will perhaps best be appreciated by fans of classic crime fiction, who know – and love – the books that Berkeley was so deftly satirizing.
Clearly, I have pulled on my curmudgeon pants today. I say this because my brain has been offering up a near-ceaseless litany of “things were better in the old days” – better when people drank COFFEE rather than “coffee drinks,” better when restaurants weren’t so noisy, better when a ticket to a Broadway show didn’t cost the equivalent of six months’ rent. (Ah yes, the old days. When black people couldn’t vote, single women couldn’t get bank loans, and gay people were routinely arrested. Let’s definitely go back there!)
Aside from coffee and affordable tickets, what else was better in those golden good old days? Espionage. Or rather, espionage fiction. Don’t get me wrong: Spook books have long had a trashy side (what, you thought James Bond was high literature?). And you know, I loves me some good trash. But over the past couple of decades, espionage has tilted so far toward the action end of things that, as a genre, it has become, mostly, hard-boiled with international settings. Take a snarky 35-year-old guy who knows how to shoot, put him in Istanbul, and hey presto.
I say “as a genre,” because of course there are exceptions to the rule (waving to Olen Steinhauer). And the truth is, I can enjoy one of those plot-driven, pedal-to-the-metal yarns as much as anyone. But my heart is really with somewhat slower-paced, more intricate stories, with more complicated characters and, often, a sense of the past extending its sticky fingers into the current chess-game. And those stories…I don’t see a lot of them being published.
Which is why I’m so happy to have reissued Michael David Anthony’s quiet, quirky trilogy, beginning with The Becket Factor. The books are quiet because, well, they’re set in and around Canterbury Cathedral, where folks tend to talk in hushed, reverent tones. And also because the gent at the heart of the story is well past his shouting years: After a long career in the Secret Service, Colonel Richard Harrison has retired to Canterbury to work a cushy Cathedral job and take care of his disabled wife.
If the wish for a peaceful retirement were ever to be granted, we’d be out of mystery fiction. Harrison is soon co-opted by his former boss into some freelance sleuthing, picking apart the web of intrigue that ties together a Bishop’s scandalous diaries, a murdered Canon, the highly contentious election of a new Archbishop, and the bones – dug up by a crew of construction workers – of Thomas Becket, the 12th-century martyr and onetime Archbishop of Canterbury.
“Echoes of Le Carré abound in this elegantly written first novel,” said Kirkus. And we say that for one week only, it’s on sale.
This has been a week of big news in the mystery world. The last week of April is, every year, Edgars Week, when the Mystery Writers of America hands out its prestigious awards for some of the best books of the year. As always, this year saw some familiar and beloved names taking the trophies – (may we say congratulations, Mr. King?) and also some newcomers. The Edgars has an entire category devoted to first-time novelists, so the five writers on the shortlist are guaranteed to be unknowns – well, known to their friends and families, sure, but not to the wider reading public. The Edgars banquet, with its glitter and evening gowns (for real!) and its setting at a fancy-pants Manhattan hotel, has got to be the dandiest possible welcome for the five newbies, even for the four that don’t ultimately win. Nobody can guarantee them a career, but that Edgar nomination states clearly, in New York-neon letters, that they have earned the right to try.
That full-throated Hello is on my mind right now because this week was also the occasion of a significant Goodbye, with the death of Ruth Rendell, herself the recipient of three Edgar awards, along with a host of other prizes (including a CBE and a life-peerage; she was properly Baroness Rendell of Babergh), in a writing career that spanned more than half a century. The Web is full of passionate farewells to Rendell, appreciations of her work, and fond remembrances; I won’t intrude on what others are better placed to say. In truth, Rendell was never my writer. While I have often used “creepy” as a term of approbation – when discussing Sarah Rayne’s chillers, for example – Rendell’s brand of creepiness didn’t ring my chimes, though I read a number of her books if only to stay on top of important trends in mystery fiction. Because of this antipathy, I had to be coaxed and prodded and almost shamed into reading Anna’s Book (UK title: Asta’s Book), which Rendell wrote as Barbara Vine.
I’m so glad I gave in. Anna’s Book retains all of Rendell’s trademarks – the keen intelligence most of all, but also the quirky characters, the pinpoint settings, the plot twists – but wraps them, unusually, in sunlight. This is Rendell – and crime fiction – we’re talking about, so that sunlight is not the pure, scaldingly redemptive glare of an August afternoon. Rather, it’s a sort of dusty gold, an elegiac gilding that softens the cruelty of the story the way a sepia-toned photograph lends a beauty to even the stoniest features. I have no idea what was going on in Rendell’s life when she wrote this, if some blessing had fallen into her hands, a gift of warmth that she had never expected. But the book does read, to me, as though it’s a response to some new, fragile joy. It’s a delight. I plan to reread it this week, both as a tribute to a difficult, never compromising, ferociously intelligent writer – and as a real personal pleasure. And to follow, some of the Web’s great cache of Rendelliana.
A very happy 122nd birthday to Ngaio Marsh! She was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1966, but according to one British newspaper, she “stands out as Empress among the queens of crime” (the queens, you understand, being Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, et al.). We’ve got heaps of interesting Marsh tidbits for your reading (and listening!) pleasure, including a lovely memory-essay by one of her nieces, and a fascinating grab-bag of interviews from Radio New Zealand (dig that exquisite diction!), and we’ll be running items all week. We feel that if you hit age 122 with all your books still in print, you deserve more than a happy birthDAY; you’ve earned an entire birthday week.
Want to help us celebrate? This week only: EVERY SINGLE NGAIO MARSH BOOK is on sale!
I dropped the ball. In early 2010 we published Close-Up, a sly, unusual thriller translated from the original Dutch. In the ordinary course of things, I would have jumped on it months earlier – having review copies printed up, sending those copies out to reviewers and influential bookstores, trying to drum up some buzz (and isn’t that a mixed metaphor!). But my mom had died five months earlier, my father had made an abrupt descent into dementia, and I was…distracted. So Close-Up never got the Felonious attention it deserves.
And make no mistake, it does deserve attention. Margot, the character at its center is a textbook example of depression. And as you follow her story, you, the reader, begin to see in yourself the textbook responses. There’s pity, certainly. Irritation at her bull-headed passivity. And slowly, an edgy concern, as Margot seems drawn into a scenario that grows more menacing by the minute. “DON’T GO THERE!” you want to holler, like the audience at a horror-movie. But she does go there. And what she finds…will confound your expectations and knock your socks off. This week, a 50% discount (doubling down on our usual discount as apology for dropping that ball).
Let’s say it right upfront: There are no spiders in this book. The spider’s house of the title is a fevered mind, clotted with the sticky, increasingly poisonous residue of obsession. But whose mind is it? Does it belong to novelist Anna Howell, who has moved with her husband to this postcard-pretty English town? Does it belong to the notorious – if long-ago – murderess, who appears to have some frightening connection to the Howells’ new house? Or does it belong to someone else entirely, someone perhaps who is watching Anna, who knows the house’s history, and who is just waiting for the right, the perfect moment to….act?
In the Spider’s House all but defines the term “psychological suspense.” Publisher’s Weekly called it an “atmospheric, mordant study of compulsive behavior.” Much though we love their use of “mordant” (c’mon, when was the last time you saw “mordant” in print?), we’d just call it a terrific, twisty read. We are delighted to introduce author Sarah Diamond, in her U.S. debut – so delighted that we’re offering In the Spider’s House at a 25% discount.