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Honorrific: The Faces of Angels, by Lucretia Grindle, nominated for an Edgar Award

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I was taught as a child that it’s tacky to brag, so somewhere my mother is looking down at me with her lips pursed, because I’m about to brag something serious. Felony & Mayhem Press has been nominated for its fourth consecutive Edgar award.

This is a big deal on several fronts. First, the Edgars—named, of course, for Mr. Poe—are essentially the Oscars of the mystery world; it actually is an honor just to be nominated. And did I mention that we’ve been honored four times in a row? We’re the first small press in the history of the awards to be honored like that. That’s just….buckets of honor.

Then there are the odds. One of my favorite lines in theater history comes from the Tennessee Williams play Sweet Bird of Youth. We’re in a crummy Florida hotel room, where the Princess Kosmonopolis, an aging movie star, is sleeping off a night of excess. She wakes to find Chance Wayne, a young gigolo, preening at the dressing table. Her arm over her eyes, the Princess asks who the hell he is, and Chance replies “Well, M’am, I used to be the best-looking boy in this town.”

The Princess considers this. And then she asks, “How big is the town?”

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In Memoriam: Reginald Hill

Reginald-Hill-in-Memorium

It’s with real sadness that I learned this afternoon of the death of Reginald Hill, author of the splendid “Dalziel and Pascoe” series about a pair of magnificently mismatched Yorkshire cops, of some of my all-time favorite espionage titles (Who Guards a Prince was on the very first list of titles published by Felony & Mayhem), and of an astonishing 47 novels overall, plus several short-story collections.

I met Reg Hill only once, and remember him as a very tall, very sloshed, and very charming man, with a wickedly glinting eye. There was something of the roguish Southern gentleman about him, though he was deeply English. Much more important than that brief meeting, though, was my relationship with his books, which has been both long and heartfelt. In a genre that is all too often correctly criticized for specializing in cardboard characters, Hill created some of the most nuanced and individual (and funniest) characters ever to bestride a page, Fat Andy Dalziel being, of course, first among them. Would I want Andy in my life? Probably not. He’d hurt my feelings, he’d insult my friends, he’d embarrass me in public. But he’d have my back so solidly that it would be like leaning against a stone wall, and that’s worth a lot. And once in a while he would make me absolutely bark with laughter. And I can’t think of many writers, certainly not many mystery writers, who have created a character of such glorious and realistic complexity.

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The Old-school Espionage of The Innocent Spy

The Innocent Spy, by Laura Wilson

Time was, espionage was – or had license to be – by far the most interesting genre in the mystery field. The threats could be as large as nations or as petty as one’s boss; the settings could span the world; and in the right (write?) hands, books were sprinkled with all kinds of fascinating “tradecraft,” everything from how to unmask a traitor to the specifics of blowing up a train en route from Vienna to Istanbul. Fabulous stuff.

But over the past 20 years or so – and for a host of reasons, maybe fodder for some good blog-chat – the vast majority of espionage novels have morphed into “thrillers,” which is industry-speak for lots of action, and not much else. I don’t mean to dis the entire thriller-genre; some writers do a terrific job (I have particularly liked Joe Finder’s books, for example). Thrillers, though, are essentially fairly simplistic, and more often than not, I want something more complex to chew on. I want a wider variety of flavors. I want more surprise.

I want The Innocent Spy. What astonishes about this book – and the others in the Ted Stratton series that follow it – is the extent to which every element, from the setting to the character of the initial murder victim, adds deep and specific flavor to the pot. There is not a single wasted element, and that’s extremely rare these days. I don’t want to give away any plot-points, and will only say that Laura Wilson’s thoughtfulness – in a genre all too often dominated by lazy thinking – is evident on every page. This is old-school espionage, and I am delighted to welcome it onto my shelves.

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A Friendly New Year: On Reading and Resolutions

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I am fortunate enough to spend my Christmases with some friends who live in a small town in Pennsylvania. Their location is so rural that deer occasionally wander up to stare at me as I sit on the deck with my morning coffee, and that snow actually stays on the ground, deep and crisp and even, rather than turning in minutes to citified slush. A lifelong New Yorker, I am charmed to the bone.

I’m also a passionate cat-lover, but I am delighted to spend time with my friends’ big, boisterous dogs. My Jewish soul is thrilled by the decorated tree, piled with presents wrapped cack-handedly in Walmart’s shiniest. (And my Jewish soul was profoundly ticked off this year, when the tree proved “too much of a bother,” and was replaced with a listing jade plant hung with a handful of ornaments. BRING BACK THE DAMN TREE!) All in all, my few days in Pennsylvania offer, every year, the most wonderful vacation from my life.

This year, though, it wasn’t the tree or the dogs that provided the most profound reminder that I was not in Kansas anymore: It was my friends’ twenty-three-year-old son. Or, more specifically, his unrelentingly sunny disposish. (“He’s always been like that,” says his mother. “When he was little, he’d come running into the kitchen and say ‘I had THE BEST DAY!!!’ I’d ask what had happened and the answer was always something like he had found a pretty pebble.”) New Yorkers, we’re not like that. We regard cynicism as our birthright, and tend to think of happy people as being too dumb to have discovered self-loathing.

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When the Winds Blow Cold, It’s Time to Get Blotto!

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Dutchess, by Simon Brett

Ah, November, how utterly divine! Any moment now we’ll start attending holiday parties, all whiskey and punchbowls and everyone getting completely blotto. Come January, darling, I shall be Virtue Personified, but if I’m terribly terribly lucky, I will still get blotto – and Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess, and all of it the sequel, of course, to Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter. NO! You missed the first Blotto? But darling, Booklist called it “a complete wow.” They said….hang on, I’ve got this somewhere, and how I wish I weren’t so killingly disorganized….ahHA! Yes, here it is! They said it was like “Cleopatra rolling out of a carpet before an astonished Caesar,” and that it offered “a breakneck plot in the Restoration Comedy mold.” And OH!, they said it was “absolutely bullet-riddled with Wodehouseian wit.” I mean, really, darling, one doesn’t get reviews much better than that.

At any rate, people are saying that the new one might be even better. Blotto’s there, of course, all handsome and noble and thick as two planks, and his gorgeously clever sister Twinks, and this time, unless they find the baddies, their adorable chauffeur Corky will hang for a crime that he positively did not commit. Now, I’m not giving away any secrets; that’s all in the catalog. And it all winds up with Blotto and Twinks confronting – oh this is simply too terrifying – the League of the Crimson Hand. January is going to be ghastly, you know, between the wretched weather and the need to give one’s liver a rest. The only thing that can possibly get me through it is a riveting, amusing book. The Guardian called this one “perfect entertainment,” and that sounds just about good enough for me.

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What’s in a Name?

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I am what you might call very attuned to names, because my own surname is weird and almost always spelled wrong. (The worst version I got was a result of registering at a Welsh bed-and-breakfast over the phone; when I got there they had me listed as Maggie Hopeless.) I “collect” peculiar names, often from the “society” pages of the New York Times (my longstanding favorite is a couple named Boykin and Celerie; I’m not allowed to make a lot of fun of them because they donate heavily to political causes of which I approve). And many years ago, for reasons I’ve long forgotten, I wrote the beginning of a gothic parody, several paragraphs of deeply purple prose about beautiful Felony Mayhem and her younger sister, Dyptheria. They lived in a crumbling mansion on the moors, attended by a maid named Larceny. Felony was being courted by the cousins Arson and Ague, one of whom was evil but I can’t remember which. And that, aside from much smug snickering on my part, was as far as it went.

Flash forward to 2004, when I was setting up this odd little publishing…well, custom would call it a publishing house, but I tend to think of it more as a publishing shack. I wanted a name for it that would echo some of the great, double-barreled English firms (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, for example) only…bent. I wanted something that would sound a bit flowery, but with (as the great S.J. Perelman would put it) somewhere a roscoe. Felony & Mayhem was born.

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Sarah Rayne’s A Dark Dividing in Portland Book Review

A Dark Dividing, by Sarah Rayne

A review of Sarah Rayne’s A Dark Dividing:

Recently demoted journalist Harry Fitzglen is annoyed to be given the fluff assignment of covering a new art gallery opening. His interest is piqued, however, when he learns that the co-owner of the gallery is Simone Anderson, one half of formerly conjoined twins who disappeared from the public eye when they were infants. In his quest to solve the mystery, Harry stumbles upon records of another set of twins born a century earlier that may be connected to Simone. Pursuing this lead points Harry to a crumbling mansion on the Welsh border, Mortmain House, a foreboding place with a dark history. But bringing the truth to light can be dangerous and Harry may be unleashing secrets that put Simone’s life in danger.

With A Dark Dividing, author Sarah Rayne has created a mystery with supernatural elements that slowly builds tension throughout the book. She slowly builds an atmosphere that is unnerving and tense as the stories, both present and past, are revealed. Using more classical elements of mystery and the paranormal in ways that are reminiscent of Henry James or Wilkie Collins, the author has crafted a novel that is riveting and hard to put down.

Reviewed by Barbara Cothern, in Portland Book Review

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